January 30, 2011 8:57 pm

US pushes for calm transition in Egypt

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The US has called for an “orderly transition” to bring the chaos in Egypt to an end, as fears mount in Washington that the Obama administration could lose its strategic ally in the Middle East.

As Washington finalised plans to evacuate thousands of US nationals to “safe havens” in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus in charter flights starting today, Barack Obama, president, discussed the growing crisis with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Turkey and with David Cameron, British prime minister.

In television interviews, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, sought to burnish the US’s reputation with pro-democracy demonstrators who accuse Washington of siding with President Hosni Mubarak.

But she also reached out to the Egyptian army, which she praised for its restraint. “We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void ... that there be a well-thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic, participatory government,” Mrs Clinton said.

“It’s in the interest of the partnership that the US has with Egypt.”

US officials were also well aware that a 30-year-old strategic alliance with Mr Mubarak had caused the superpower to be identified by many Egyptians with their president’s authoritarian rule. Only 17 per cent of Egyptian respondents had a favourable view of the US in a Pew Global Attitudes survey last year, with 82 per cent unfavourable. It was the US’s worst rating in any country surveyed.

Mrs Clinton argued that over those three decades the US had consistently pushed for more democracy in Egypt. But for years, successive US administrations had dreaded a shift in power that would deliver the country into much less friendly hands.

While the administration of George W. Bush made high-profile calls for more democracy in the country, causing a rift with Mr Mubarak, it toned down such demands after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood scored victories in 2005 elections.

The Obama administration steered further from Mr Bush’s “name and shame” tactics on human rights, though it has advanced calls for greater democracy more vigorously.

US officials privately acknowledged that the two scenarios they most wanted to avoid were increased bloodshed and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. “What we are focused on now is a transition that will meet the needs of the Egyptian people and that will truly establish democracy, not just for one election and then no more elections after that or not for radicals, extremists, violent elements to take over,” Mrs Clinton said.

She said Mr Mubarak had not done enough to respond to protesters’ calls, in comments that stopped just short of an explicit call for the president to depart.

But, in a sign of the US’s preoccupation that any successor government could be less friendly to Washington, she warned that an “overnight” change would have “very grave consequences” and held out presidential elections scheduled for September as a possible time for a new government.

“There needs to be a peaceful, orderly process to free, fair and credible elections,” said the state department. “But this should be a path to true democracy, not phoney democracy where a small group imposes its will on the people.”

US officials continue to insist that the protests in Egypt are very different from the uprising in Tunisia, where the government was deposed in days.

The Obama administration has received backing from Republican leaders, who have neither criticised the US president for cutting an ally loose – partly since Mr Mubarak’s relations were so bad with Mr Bush – nor called for the Egyptian president to go immediately. “My great fear is, obviously, radical Islamic extremists – the Iran scenario,” said John McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee.

Bruce Riedel, a former White House official and Central Intelligence Agency analyst, said Washington should help negotiations between the army and the protesters towards a peaceful transition.

But he added: “The US is going to have to find a way to work with the Muslim Brotherhood because they will be a huge player in what comes next.”

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