The Cable

Mubarak on the Potomac

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who arrived in Washington Monday accompanied by a large delegation including his son Gamal Mubarak and several dozen Egyptian journalists, doesn't travel light. Still, with members of Congress back in their districts during August recess and much of the rest of the city out of town, there is a distinct under-the-radar quality to this official Mubarak state visit, his first to Washington in six years.

When the Middle East potentate was scheduled to come to Washington in May, he was due to stay at Blair House, the official residence for visiting foreign dignitaries. But after that visit was canceled due to the death of his grandson, the new trip took a different, less formal cast, with Mubarak no longer a guest at the swank U.S. government mansion but instead apparently encamped at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where he was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday. And instead of American VIPs coming to have an audience with Mubarak at Blair House as planned in May, the Egyptians have invited groups of former senior U.S. government officials to meet with Mubarak at the Four Seasons as well. (U.S. Jewish leaders met with Mubarak Monday as well). Drivers on Rock Creek Parkway Monday may have noticed the exit to the Four Seasons blocked off at the bottom by police cars.

Mubarak is slated to have a "leaders" meeting -- just him and President Barack Obama plus note-takers -- at the White House tomorrow, followed by an expanded meeting of the two delegations that will include Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, Clinton, other national security principals and key staff, followed by a working lunch in the White House cabinet room. Mubarak is not scheduled to visit Congress at all this trip. The Egyptian delegation is due to depart Washington directly after the White House meetings Tuesday.

The timing of the visit might be deliberately low key, designed to obscure concerns about Mubarak's heavyhanded rule at home and the uncertain succession prospects for the octogenarian leader, who some Egypt watchers say has been devastated and more frail since the death of his grandson. Mubarak is accompanied this visit by his son and possible would-be successor Gamal Mubarak, 46, who slipped into Washington in March for a low profile, private visit, speaking to small, invite-only meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The big unanswered question of the Mubarak visit is what, if anything, President Obama will say to Mubarak about Egypt's internal political situation," said one Washington Middle East hand who asked for anonymity. "Concern is rising about Mubarak's longevity and how smooth a transition to Egypt's next president will be. Conditions are poor: Mubarak has made no formal provisions, there is opposition to his son's ascendance, and the country is under increasing socio-economic stress ... The U.S., which relies on Egypt for regional strategic cooperation, is legitimately concerned with these problems -- but Cairo has made it clear they don't want to discuss domestic affairs, or at least not in public."

Several experts said that could well be the reason for the dead of August scheduling. Said Steven Cook, a Middle East hand at the Council on Foreign Relations, "When the Egyptians ... rescheduled this meeting, and they chose the middle of August, ... a week before Obama's vacation, with Obama checking his watch, it seems to me that the Egyptians were heavily involved" in scheduling Mubarak's trip for when Congress and those who might holler about Egypt's record on human rights and democracy would be scant. Nevertheless, a coalition of Egyptian-American groups have planned a demonstration at the White House tomorrow, starring former dissident, now in exile, Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

"In contrast to Obama's stated interest in reaching out to the people of the Arab and Muslim world, the atmospherics of this trip - the behind-closed-door meetings in August, the lack of transparency - all seem to be about excluding the Egyptian and American people from the conversation, not including them," said Andrew Albertson of the Project on Middle East Democracy.

But administration officials gave little indication that Egypt's internal political situation will be as prominent on the Obama agenda with Mubarak as Egypt's regional role and what ideas Mubarak has for trying to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "In particular, the President will want to discuss how Arab states can help create a context to launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, by agreeing to gestures towards Israel in the context of the Arab Peace Initiative," a White House official told The Cable.

"I can imagine the president sitting down tomorrow with Mubarak and saying, 'In a spirit of cooperation, let's figure this out together, how to satisfy everybody here,'" CFR's Cook said. "The key issue is whether they get a deliverable, and what it is. That is the thing that everybody should be watching."

A former senior George H.W. Bush official said the Mubarak delegation is likely to be "tough and consistent ... on what the Israelis need to do i.e. settlement freeze to get talks started." The former official said Mubarak and his key negotiator, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, may also try to leverage a clash last weekend between Hamas and a reportedly Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Gaza to try to push the Obama administration to adopt a more flexible formula for enabling Hamas to join a prospective Palestinian unity government.

The Obama administration has said that Hamas can join such a unity government if it agrees to the so-called "Quartet conditions" established by the US, UN, EU and Russia -- recognize Israel's right to exist, agree to honor past agreements, and renounce violence. Cairo wants Washington to consider Hamas members' prospective recognition of the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative as de facto recognition of Israel's right to exist, the former senior official said. "Some in the U.S. administration don't agree."

While Obama's Middle East peace push has taken a back seat in recent weeks to his focus on health care and other domestic issues, it hasn't disappeared from his schedule entirely or his thinking, Middle East hands say. The president met with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and members of his team last week. "This is still up there," on Obama's agenda, The Cable was told, referring to Obama's personal commitment to advancing comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

The Cable

Short takes: Mubarak edition

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, back from Africa, meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Four Seasons hotel at 1pm today. Mubarak, in town with a large entourage that includes intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, is due to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House tomorrow.

On the agenda: "The President plans to discuss the full range of issues with President Mubarak, including combating extremism and terrorism, advancing Arab-Israeli peace, and promoting reform across the Middle East," a White House official said. "In particular, the President will want to discuss how Arab states can help create a context to launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, by agreeing to gestures towards Israel in the context of the Arab Peace Initiative."

The Mubarak delegation "will be tough and consistent a la the Saudis on what the Israelis need to do i.e. settlement freeze to get talks started," a former senior George H.W. Bush administration official said. "I am sure they will talk about the Fatah congress and about the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, also recent Al Qaeda threat in Gaza.  This should strengthen Mubarak's position for more flexibility from the U.S. in dealing with Hamas."

While the Obama administration has said Hamas has to agree to the Quartet conditions to join a Palestinian unity government -- recognize Israel's right to exist, agree to observe past agreements, and renounce violence, Cairo wants Washington to consider that if Hamas accepts the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative, that would constitute recognition of Israel, the former senior official said. "Some in the U.S. administration don't agree."

"What will be interesting to see is how much stamina Mubarak has during his stay," the former senior official said.  "I understand he was pretty frail but in recent weeks seems to have made a comeback."  

Swearing in: Clinton swears in Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten, and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual in ceremonies at the State Department today. Vice President Joseph Biden swears in Ambassador to South Africa Don Gips at the White House.

Tomorrow, Clinton is due to swear in Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population and Migration Eric Schwartz and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. Mid week, Clinton heads to Massachusetts for vacation.

Burma release: John Yettaw, the American whose deportation from Burma Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) negotiated, is receiving medical treatment in Bangkok, the AFP reports. On his weekend trip to Burma, Webb also met with pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced by Myanmar authorities to an additional 18 months of home detention for violating the terms of her home detention after Yettaw swam to her home.

Treasury: Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs nominee Lael Brainard is still waiting for the Senate Finance Committee to schedule her confirmation hearings. Culprit for the wait, reports the Washington Post's Al Kamen: An ex IRS agent on the staff of the Finance committee doing its own vet of Brainard, whose husband Kurt Campbell was confirmed as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in June.

Iraq refugees: The White House has tapped NSC senior director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power to coordinate Iraq refugee efforts across the U.S. government. Foreign Service Officer Mark Storella will coordinate refugee efforts on the ground in Iraq.

Obama's ambassadors, career diplomats/political appointee ratio: "Thirty-eight of [Obama's] first 65 ambassadorial appointments were political," the New York Times' Brian Knowlton reports. "Even if every political envoy remaining were replaced by a career officer, the percentage would fall only to 26 percent. The lowest among recent presidents was 24 percent, under President Jimmy Carter." The ratio has recently hovered at about 30 percent, the paper reports. Still, Obama has picked some seemingly more qualified political appointees, including some big fundraisers, for the plum ambassador jobs.

Jerusalem: Former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is holding a dinner tonight in the Shepherd Hotel, the site of a controversial Jewish housing construction project in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem that is opposed by the U.S. government. The American wing of a group attending the Huckabee Shepherd hotel gala dinner tonight, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, has a tax exempt status in the U.S., Ha'aretz reports: "Financing land purchases in East Jerusalem would, therefore, seem to violate the organization's tax-exempt status," the paper reports. "Daniel Luria, chief fund-raiser for Ateret Cohanim in Israel, told Haaretz Sunday that the American organization's registration as an educational entity stemmed from tax considerations. ... He also estimated that 60 percent of Ateret Cohanim's money is raised in the U.S." The group is dedicated to buying up Arab land in Jerusalem.  

Afghanistan's elections are Thursday.  Arriving from Turkey to campaign for incumbent Hamid Karzai, McClatchy reports, notorious warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. "There have been repeated allegations that his men, from the ethnic Uzbek minority, caused the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners in late-2001, a time when Dostum worked closely with U.S. special forces and intelligence teams. ... Dostum and Karzai are expected to travel to Dostum's hometown of Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan Province, in campaigning for Thursday's presidential election."

Though his popularity is low and he is seen as corrupt, Karzai is widely expected to win Afghanistan's second contested national election, write the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Karin von Hippel and Alyssa Bernstein: "He has obvious name recognition, as well as support from extensive power brokering with tribal leaders around the country. No candidate is receiving the same amount of media coverage as Karzai, and he has been accused of exploiting and censoring the state-run media. Until a few weeks ago, it appeared that none of the 36 registered presidential candidates posed a threat to Karzai. But his three main competitors have recently gained in popularity, propelled by intense dissatisfaction with the corruption and inefficiency of the current government. According to the most recent polls, performed by the International Republican Institute in mid-July, Karzai will win 45% of the vote, Abdullah Abdullah 26%, Ramazan Bashardost 10%, and Ashraf Ghani 6%," likely forcing the elections into a second-round run off.

U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke is in Pakistan Monday, heading to Afghanistan to observe the elections. The Project on Middle East Democracy has summarized a discussion with Holbrooke's senior advisors Barnett Rubin, Ashley Bommer, Vali Nasr, USAID's Beth Dunford, the DoD's Vikram Singh, Treasury's Rami Shy, the USDA's Otto J. Gonzales, etc. hosted by Center for American Progress' John Podesta last week.