WASHINGTON — Unanswered questions about exactly what President Barack Obama said privately to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Tuesday had White House reporters frustrated in Wednesday’s press briefing — and it looks unlikely the hush will lift anytime soon.
Whatever the media’s demands, don’t expect the White House to say much, said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
“What the U.S. says isn’t going to have too much effect on the situation,” Marshall said. “Our ability at this stage to affect events is not that strong. I think the Egyptian Army has decided what it’s going to do and it’s going to be the power broker.”
The administration has come under fire for its public silence as crowds gathered, and it now faces more complex questions about how to respond. Riots continued for the ninth straight day in Egypt, with newly reported clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators.
This comes after Mubarak announced late Tuesday that he would not seek reelection in Egypt’s upcoming September elections. He said his decision was to stay in office until then to ease the shift in power.
Top White House officials have been quick to confirm and promote that strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has continued to call for a “peaceful, orderly transition” to “real democracy.”
Still, the timeline for such a transition is hazy. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested Wednesday that there’s a need to move definitively toward free and fair elections, but offered no specific dates.
“This underscores precisely what the president spoke about last night,” Gibbs said. “The time for transition has come and that time is now.”
But no one knows exactly when “now” starts, and if Obama will increase pressure on Mubarak to step down sooner or speed up the election process. Obama has not yet spoken directly to the press to clarify his intentions.
“If the U.S. says too many things publicly—which really won’t have an effect—I think it will tend to damage us,” Marshall added.
What does need to be done, Marshall said, is push Mubarak privately to come out and say more.
The man who has held power in Egypt for the past 30 years has not yet confirmed that his son, Gamal, who is considered his most likely successor, will also leave Egyptian politics.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote an editorial in the New York Times Tuesday, saying: “Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation.”
Mubarak might be slow to hand over power, because his literal life could be at stake, Marshall said.
And the U.S. shouldn’t rush the situation, he said. Unlike the political system Americans are used to, there is only very loosely organized opposition to take power in his place.
Marshall said even the names the media is reporting the U.S. should be worried about are not structured well enough to do much. The greater concern is how the U.S. can get rid of Mubarak without leaving Egypt lacking a functioning government.
“At the moment you have a lot of people in the streets, and you do not have an alternative government,” he said. “If the regime collapsed, you’d simply have chaos and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”