02.05.11

What the White House Isn't Saying About Egypt

Carl Bernstein reports on what is driving U.S. diplomats' efforts to put together—by Monday it is hoped—a plan that would leave Mubarak in place as a temporary, powerless, de facto head of state.

Carl Bernstein reports on what is driving U.S. diplomats' efforts to put togetherby Monday it is hopeda plan that would leave Mubarak in place as a temporary, powerless, de facto head of state. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt protests.

For the past week, a series of realities unstated by the White House or the State Department has driven American diplomacy dealing with the momentous events in Egypt, according to high-level sources familiar with the process.

Photos: Demonstrations in Egypt

First and foremost, the United States—in concert increasingly with other governments—is seeking an immediate transition to democratic pluralism and procedures that, simultaneously, will prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from overwhelming or co-opting the process to become the dominant political force in Egypt’s post-Mubarak future.

To accomplish this, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while sympathetic to the desire of Egyptian democratic forces that want Mubarak step down immediately, in fact have been working toward a solution that would permit him to stay for a brief period as a powerless, defacto head of state. He would remain as such until new mechanisms, and perhaps a new Egyptian constitution, are in place for a stable transition that would also prevent authoritarian and corrupt Mubarak apparatchiks from controlling the process of succession.

This is particularly true in terms of the speaker of the Egyptian parliament, Fathi Surur, who has been speaker of the People's Assembly since 1990, described by someone familiar with his record as “a corrupt, venal man,” who under the existing constitution would become president of the country if Mubarak should abruptly resign or be removed from office.

Thus, Obama and Clinton, with help from other world leaders, including figures in the Arab world, have been trying to achieve a consensus among prominent Egyptian politicians, academics, bankers, cultural leaders, and representatives of the fledging democracy movement personified by young people in Tahrir Square, that Mubarak should be effectively stripped of his power and convinced to cede his presidential powers while briefly retaining the title of president. Ideally under ths scenario, Mubarak would leave the presidential palace in the next few days, but retain the presidency as a means of keeping it from passing—under the existing constitution—to the parliamentary speaker, Surur. State Department officials and anti-Mubarak forces in Egypt consider Surur inimical to the interests of both the United States and advocates of democracy in Egypt, as well as other Arab leaders who fear that further chaos there could feed radical Islamic influence in their own countries.

These underlying realities are what have driven the events described in Saturday morning’s New York Times report, that Egypt’s new vice president Omar Suleiman and military leaders have begun discussions to strip Mubarak of his decision-making powers and perhaps have him taken from the presidential palace in Cairo—while still remaining president. Then, a “transition government” led by Suleiman would begin negotiating with various factions that have opposed Mubarak to amend the constitution, end the “emergency” under which Mubarak has governed with an iron fist since 1981, and draft a series of democratic reforms including rights to assembly, free speech, religious freedom (particularly for Egypt’s million-plus Christians), presidential term limits, and the rules for the next presidential election, scheduled for September.

These same underlying realities explain the urgency of Secretary Clinton’s comments Saturday morning on the need to support Suleiman in brokering agreements with opposition groups while Mubarak remains in office.

A powerless but constitutionally present Mubarak—for another few weeks, at least—would be consistent with the intricate dance that the White House and Secretary Clinton have been trying to encourage.

Such a solution—a powerless but constitutionally present Mubarak for another few weeks, at least—would be consistent with the intricate dance that the White House and Secretary Clinton have been trying to encourage, according to aides, and one that has prevented them from playing their cards in the open—i.e., from enunciating publicly that one of the primary objectives is to prevent the Brotherhood from walking through the door or power to be ceded to the speaker of the parliament. “He is ghastly, and there could be no consensus if he were to govern,” said one U.S. diplomat. Similarly, there is fear among top players in the national-security apparatus in Washington and among democracy advocates in Cairo that if too much authority is claimed by the Egyptian military in formulating a post-Mubarak future, another authoritarian era could ensue.

“Part of the difficulty is the perception that the problems will all be solved if Mubarak simply is pushed out… and resigns,” said a source familiar the U.S. strategy. “Mubarak is already history, but the real issue is how you build a bridge to the future and get a stable outcome that protects democratic principles and gets a decent, participatory system and doesn’t leave the door wide open for the Muslim Brotherhood to walk in. Our focus is a stable outcome where the great mass of responsible Egypt is able to express itself.”

Leslie H. Gelb: Obama's Egypt Flip-Flop

Full coverage of Egypt protests
However, the American strategy—and its message in a situation in which its power is already limited—has been complicated by leaked comments from various administration officials that would appear to give tacit backing to the notion of Mubarak’s immediate, unambiguous ouster, even while President Obama and Secretary Clinton have taken care not to urge such a denouement because of the complicated problems of succession, among other factors.

“That’s why you don’t actually want Mubarak to leave right away, though on the surface it might seem the case,” said a source familiar with the U.S. strategy. “What you want to do is have him go off to his home at Sharm el Sheik [a seaside resort], or take one of his medical holidays in Europe. Meanwhile, we are hearing too much from some [American] political scientists blathering that we have nothing to fear from the Muslim Brothers. The people saying this are full of shit.”

In the White House, there is hope that, by Monday, the strategy now being discussed sotto voce in Cairo and Washington will be in place, and that a gathering of prominent politicians, bankers, young democracy advocates and others will meet to sort out the next steps: what kind of constitution, the date that the Mubarak “emergency” will be declared ended—“all the rules of the road ahead,” as an American official put it. “But until then, Mubarak is president, but you don’t hear from him, he’s the umbrella but not the CEO."

Carl Bernstein shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward for his coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is the author, with Woodward, of All the President’s Men and The Final Days, and, with Marco Politi, of His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time. He is also the author of Loyalties, a memoir about his parents during McCarthy Era Washington.