WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday called for a "peaceful, orderly transition to greater democracy" in Egypt that includes the military, the ruling party and the ordinary Egyptians who've taken to the streets to call for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's leadership.
Yet even as she was careful to say the U.S. was not advocating any specific outcome, Clinton and the White House made clear that support is dwindling for Mubarak's authoritarian regime.
Their use of the word "transition" appeared to signal a hardening of U.S. policy toward Mubarak in the course of just 48 hours. On Friday, neither Clinton nor President Barack Obama used the phrase when they publicly called on the Egyptian leader to initiate "concrete steps that advance political reforms."
That changed over the weekend, as protests continued across Egypt, and as those demonstrating as well as opposition leaders called on the U.S. to drop its support for the 82-year-old strongman who shut down Internet access and limited cell phone service for the country of more than 80 million.
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In conversations over the weekend with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the prime ministers of Turkey, Israel and the United Kingdom, the White House said the president called for "supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
"I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy," Clinton said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Not faux democracy, like the elections we saw in Iran two years ago, where you have one election 30 years ago and then the people just keep staying in power and become less and less responsive to their people."
Clinton emphasized during several appearances on Sunday morning talk shows that Egyptians have a timetable in place for reform, with elections scheduled for September. At one point, she suggested the orderly transition should include Mubarak, who dismissed his cabinet and this weekend appointed a vice president for the first time in his 30-year term.
"We want to see a real democracy that reflects the vibrancy of Egyptian society," Clinton said on "Meet the Press." "And we believe that President Mubarak, his government, civil society, political activists need to be part of a national dialogue to bring that about."
She also acknowledged that the White House walks a fine line with Mubarak, who has supported U.S.-led efforts to make Middle East peace, fight Islamic radicals and contain Iran. They are concerned about the ideology of future regimes, as well.
"We do not want to see a change toward a regime that would actually continue to foment violence or chaos, either because it didn't exist or because it had a different view that it wished to impose on the Egyptian people," Clinton told reporters covering her visit Sunday afternoon to Haiti. "This is a very complex situation, and we want to be clear about what we expect. And I think that both President Obama and I have done so numerous times".
Although successive U.S. administrations have pressed Mubarak to adopt reforms, that pressure has mostly been rhetorical and has wavered over time.
Mubarak's government is scheduled to receive about $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid and more than $200 million in economic assistance in the current fiscal year. It was not until the tenure of President George W. Bush that the United States publicly upbraided Egypt over its lack of political and personal freedoms.
That "name and shame" approach largely backfired, causing Mubarak and his associates to dig in their heels. The U.S. did little but complain when the regime imprisoned opposition politician Ayman Nour in 2005 following disputed presidential elections. Nour was released in 2009.
The administration's tougher language came even as a leading opposition figure, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said on U.S. television programs that Mubarak "absolutely has to leave," and called on the U.S. to "side with the people," not a dictator, as Egypt enters a new era.
ElBaradei left house arrest to speak at a demonstration at Cairo's Tahrir Square, where protesters held signs in English, aimed at U.S. eyes. They included "America: Support the people, not the tyrant" and "Mubarak: You go away, I go home. The End."
The language about a peaceful transition toward new elections shows the Obama administration understands that Mubarak's days are numbered and the decision on a successor government lies with the Egyptian people, said Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
"There seems to be a shift in U.S. policy where the Egyptian people are given respect and their right to determine their future is finally being acknowledged by the American government," he said "There is going to be a period of contestation and internal debate. But that is what Egyptians are legitimately entitled to."
Mubarak's political future is up to the Egyptian people, Clinton said, but she also acknowledged on Fox News that the U.S. is concerned that any transition be orderly to avoid a fear of some in Washington, particularly on the right: a takeover by Muslim radicals.
The administration, Hashemi said, must be prepared to accept the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized opposition party, in any new government, and resist any efforts by Israel and its U.S. supporters to cast it as a radical Islamic movement.
The brotherhood is banned in Egypt and its leaders have been targeted by frequent crackdowns, but members have been elected to the country's parliament as independents.
Hashemi said there's significant popular support in Egypt for the brotherhood, which espouses democracy based on a moderate interpretation of Islamic law — including women's right to work and hold elective offices except the presidency — runs social service networks and denounces al Qaida and violent Islamic extremism.
Any U.S. approach that doesn't include the Muslim Brotherhood would be a misreading of the fundamental reality of the situation in Egypt, Hashemi said, pointing out that the U.S. is working closely with an Iraqi government comprising Islamic religious parties.
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