In Backing Vice President, U.S. Plays Tricky Hand in Egypt


omar-suleimanVice President Omar Suleiman of Egypt says he does not think it is time to lift the 30-year-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. He does not think President Hosni Mubarak needs to resign before his term ends in September. And he does not think his country is yet ready for democracy.

But, lacking better options, the United States is encouraging him in negotiations in a still uncertain transition process in Egypt. In doing so, it is relying on the existing government to make changes that it has steadfastly resisted for years, and even now does not seem impatient to carry out.

After two weeks of recalibrated messages and efforts to keep up with a rapidly evolving situation, the Obama administration is still trying to balance support for some of the basic aspirations for change in Egypt with its concern that the pro-democracy movement could be “hijacked,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it, if change were to come too quickly.

The result has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals, and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in large part in the hands of Egyptian officials – starting with Mr. Suleiman – who have every reason to slow the process.

Faced with questions about Mr. Suleiman’s views, expressed in a series of interviews in recent days, the White House on Monday called them unacceptable.

“The notion that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy I think runs quite counter to what we see happening in Tahrir Square and on the streets in cities throughout the country,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said.

“It’s clear that statements like that are not going to be met with any agreement by the people of Egypt because they don’t address the very legitimate grievances that we’ve seen expressed as a result of these protests,” Mr. Gibbs said.

But it remains unclear how much leverage President Obama has to keep Mr. Suleiman, a Mubarak loyalist, moving toward fundamental change, especially as the authorities begin to reassert control in Egypt.

The United States has certainly had long ties with Mr. Suleiman, 74, who headed Egyptian intelligence from 1993 until he was named vice president last month. For years he has been an important contact for the Central Intelligence Agency and a regular briefer for visiting American officials, who appear to have valued his analysis of Egypt’s relations with neighbors and domestic challenges, as diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks make clear.

The cables describe Mr. Suleiman as Mr. Mubarak’s “consigliere” and having “an extremely sharp analytical mind” and serving as “the de facto national security adviser with direct responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian account.” One 2009 cable mentions him as a possible successor to Mr. Mubarak, to whom he has long been extremely close.

Mr. Suleiman also frequently assured American officials that the Mubarak government was working to keep terrorism at bay. “Egypt is circled by radicalism,” he told Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a 2009 visit to Cairo.

In 2006, he told the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, that inside Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood posed a serious threat, saying “the principal danger” was “the group’s exploitation of religion to influence and mobilize the public.”

Administration officials say that in recent days, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. – who has a long relationship with Mr. Suleiman from his days on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – has been pressing Mr. Suleiman for a clear road map of democratic reforms, linked to a timetable.

But among the protesters and opposition groups in Egypt, there is deep skepticism that Washington is demanding enough of Mr. Suleiman.

The administration sought amendments to the Egyptian Constitution to legalize political parties, termination of one-party rule, and the end of extralegal efforts to lock up government opponents and regulate the media. But much of the opposition considers the Constitution fatally flawed, and is calling for an entirely new document on which to base a more democratic Egypt.

Similarly, a meeting with opposition groups on Sunday led by Mr. Suleiman was seen by many Egyptian activists as nothing more than political theater that yielded no concrete steps toward reform. In a statement afterward – characterized by opposition figures as propaganda – Mr. Suleiman offered some of what the administration sought, but left himself a lot of wiggle room.

In the statement, he said a committee “will be formed from members of the judicial authority and a number of political figures to study and recommend constitutional amendments” and related laws. The work is supposed to be completed by the first week of March.

But the recommendations do not appear to be binding on the government; in the end, they would have to be approved by a Parliament that took office after an election last year that American officials say was clearly fixed to benefit Mr. Mubarak’s party.

The document promised that “the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society.” This is similar to what Mr. Mubarak has said for decades. The state of emergency has never been lifted.

The statement also says that “media and communications will be liberalized and no extralegal constraints will be imposed on them.” But “liberalized” is never defined, nor is it clear that Egypt is willing to allow the free flow of information over the Internet.

The White House took no issue with Mr. Suleiman’s statement; administration officials said it looked like the setting of some clear goals. On Monday, Mr. Obama said Mr. Suleiman’s talks with opposition leaders the day before were making progress.

Andrew McGregor, author of a 2006 military history of Egypt, said mixed messages coming from the Obama administration are not a surprise. “It was predictable that the U.S. response would be confusing at first,” said Mr. McGregor, of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington research center. “The Obama administration obviously wants to support democracy. But the U.S. has been backing the military regime in Egypt for 30 years.”

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the administration was responding to a rapidly changing situation in Egypt.

“The facts on the ground are changing every day,” Mr. Vietor said. “When you have a situation like this, all you can do is articulate your core principles, like universal rights for all people, and free and fair elections.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}