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U.S. Struggles To Keep Egypt Position Clear


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


We have coverage throughout our program this morning and we begin with NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: To be sure, the administration's goals of a peaceful democratic end to the crisis have not changed. Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert with George Washington University, says the Obama administration hasn't done a fundamental recalculation, but it has shifted its approach.

NATHAN BROWN: I think what the Obama administration has done is to back away from the suggestion that Hosni Mubarak leave immediately and then gone ahead with some sort of idea that there should be some kind of meaningful transition. In the process, they've set off all kinds of signals that suggest that they may be backing away from a full transition. I'm not sure that's what they intend to do but that's certainly how it's being heard.

NORTHAM: During the conference, Frank Wisner, a former diplomat dispatched to Cairo last week to meet with Mubarak, indicated that the Egyptian president needed to stay in office to oversee a political transition.

FRANK WISNER: The president in particular needs to provide the leadership that would take the changes that would permit an orderly transition to his parliament and lead Egypt through this path. So President Mubarak's role remains utterly critical in the days ahead.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration was quick to distance itself from those remarks, saying Wisner was speaking only for himself and not in an official capacity. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also created some uncertainty about a transition, saying it could take much longer than the protesters would like. She said while the U.S. fully backed a transition, it needed to be orderly.

HILLARY CLINTON: There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda.

NORTHAM: Clinton said it's important to support the transition process now headed by Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman. George Washington University's Brown says those comments weren't well received in Egypt, because even though Suleiman is involved in negotiations to help end the crisis, he's seen by the protesters as one of Mubarak's inner circle and as negotiating in bad faith.

BROWN: He's not negotiating in order to come up with a transition, he's negotiating in order to split the opposition, and if she is endorsing that or seen as endorsing that, then what she seems to be endorsing is not simply a member of the old guard but the old system kind of slightly warmed over.

NORTHAM: Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says backing Suleiman - even as a point person on the transition process - could further fray trust between the U.S. and the opposition groups. Cook says it's a good example of just how difficult it is for the administration to hit the right balance with all sides in this crisis. Cook says the White House is likely aware that the longer this crisis goes on, the more it plays into the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

STEVEN COOK: At the end of the day they may wake up and find the same old regime essentially in power, having changed a number critical things like the leadership and maybe have done some reforms but essentially it being the same old regime.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.