The Cable

White House prepares for life after Mubarak

The National Security Staff discussed how the Obama administration might approach a future Egyptian government if President Hosni Mubarak steps down with a group of foreign policy experts in a White House meeting on Monday morning. But the Obama administration believes that Washington's fingerprints shouldn't be seen anywhere near what they increasing expect will be the end of Mubarak's rule.

The Cable spoke with three of the experts who attended Monday morning's session, which included Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, NSS Senior Director for Multilateral Engagement Samantha Power and NSS Senior Director Dan Shapiro. The experts inside the meeting represented a cross section of views in Washington and included several members of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, a group that has been pushing for more administration clarity on Egypt policy over the recent months.

All three participants who spoke with The Cable said that the meeting was intense and constructive, that a real debate over the path forward for U.S. policy ensued, and that the White House staff leading the meeting indicated -- but did not say outright -- that they believed Mubarak was on his way out and that the administration was preparing for what comes next.

"We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go," said Rhodes, according to one of the expert participants. The Obama team has not told Mubarak either publicly or privately that he must step down, but has been constantly and consistently giving the embattled Egyptian leader direct and honest messages about what the U.S. expects, the White House staffers told the experts.

Multiple attendees said the White House staff expressed skepticism that newly minted Vice President Omar Soliman would emerge as the next leader of Egypt, but acknowledged that he would be influential during the transition process. "Transition" apparently is the new message word for the administration, allowing them to position themselves on the side of the protesters without throwing Mubarak completely under the bus.

The Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, who attended the meeting, told The Cable that the administration officials first reviewed what the policy has been, traced the administration's activities as the crisis unfolded, and then repeated the official message that both sides should refrain from violence.

"The White House's position has improved on the issue but they're ducking the difficult question about whether they have to say anything publicly or privately about whether Mubarak needs to go," Dunne said.

She and others in the meeting argued for swifter and more forceful statements from the administration calling for Mubarak to step down, lest the U.S. be seen as having tried to prop up the regime in the eyes of the Egyptian people.

"What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not," Dunne said. "For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard."

Although the NSS staffers in the meeting held their cards close, another attendee said the impression was clear that the administration was now focusing on a post-Mubarak Egypt.

"There was no narrative of change or reform that can involve Mubarak," this attendee said. "They see Soliman as their guy for now, but there's also doubt about Soliman's ongoing legitimacy to be a caretaker for an orderly transition. There's also doubt about what an organized process would be."

The attendees reported that the White House staff did not indicate any specific entity or person they would back as the jockeying for power plays out. There's a realization that overt American support for any group could actually harm that group's standing. There's also a realization that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have an increased role going forward and that the administration had better start thinking about how to handle that eventuality.

One of those potential leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, has been calling on the Obama administration to publicly denounce Mubarak. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey was in contact with a range of officials and groups both inside and outside the Egyptian government. The White House declined to say if they were reaching out to specific opposition leaders, such as ElBaradei.

"As a matter of course, we engage with both the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people -- including many political leaders and activists from a variety of backgrounds," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "We will continue to do so."

The Cable

Ricciardone: Mubarak could win an election -- even in the United States

Officials from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations are scrambling to argue that they have aggressively pressured embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the issues of human rights and political reform. But a closer look at the statements made by U.S. officials helps explain the antipathy toward the United States that some protesters -- including potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, who blasted America's "failed policy" in Egypt -- have expressed.

From 2005 to 2008, Frank Ricciardone was the U.S. envoy in Cairo. Ricciardone, now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey following a recess appointment by Obama, was not confirmed by the Senate because many senators had lingering concerns about his tenure there. Those in the Bush administration who were pushing for a tougher line against Mubarak believed Ricciardone was too cozy with the regime and made too many excuses for Mubarak's authoritarian policies.

"President Mubarak is well known in the United States," Ricciardone said on March 12, 2006, to a group of students in Egypt participating in a model American Congress. "He is respected. If he had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage."

The Bush administration's effort to push Mubarak toward reform suffered widespread implementation problems, which went far beyond Ricciardone. But For Ricciardone's critics, statements he made in Egypt served to undermine the democracy push and helped lead to the current situation where the United States finds itself stuck today between a dictator and his people.

"Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy," former top National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams told The Cable.

Not all Bush administration officials agree with that assessment. "He's an outstanding and extremely dedicated Foreign Service officer who has served his country in some very delicate and dangerous postings," said Mitchell Reiss, who served at the State Department's director of policy planning under Bush.

But for critics like Abrams, Ricciardone was hesitant to directly criticize Mubarak, overly optimistic about the progress of reforms, and often drew an equivalence between Egypt's struggles with human rights and democracy and the U.S. political debates.

Four days after his remarks to students in Egypt about Mubarak being able to win a U.S. election, for example, Ricciardone sought to dispel any rumors that Mubarak was not welcome in Washington.

"President Mubarak is loved in the U.S. and we always welcome him and appreciate his advice and benefit from it. He is a figure of historic importance in the global arena, and for the U.S.," he said in an interview.

Al Ahram Weekly, which is owned by the government, featured a quote by Ricciardone on Feb. 9, 2006, where he claimed that Mubarak had made "great progress" toward democratic reforms.

"There were some shortfalls in the exercise of democracy that President Mubarak and the prime minister have recognized. These have made headlines around the world and sometimes these headlines were negative and obscured the larger reality I experience every day which is a very positive reality," he said.

In an interview with Egyptian media on March 16, 2006, that was posted on the U.S. embassy in Cairo's website, Ricciardone downplayed the idea that the Egyptian government persecuted Coptic Christians.

"Naturally, here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem. If there is a problem, there are legal ways to deal with it, whether here or in the U.S.," Ricciardone said.

In a Feb. 26, 2007, interview with Lamees El-Hadidi of Egyptian Television Channel One, Ricciardone was asked what kind of pressure the U.S. government was placing on Mubarak to enact human rights and political reform. He said there was none.

"I don't think there's any kind of pressure. There's an exchange of ideas and advice between friends within an atmosphere of constant dialogue, so I don't think there's any kind of pressure," Ricciardone said.

Later in the same interview, Ricciardone was asked about the 2005 State Department report on human rights, which said that protections in Egypt were weak. He responded that he was "optimistic" about reforms in Egypt and referenced problems in the United States, by way of comparison.

"I think there's a deeply-rooted and strong civil society here (in Egypt)," he responded. "I'm optimistic despite all the shortcomings and problems. Some problems have taken place in the U.S., but what's important is that every day we seek to improve ourselves." 

As recently as February 2008, Ricciardone praised the level of political openness in Egypt in an interview with Egypt's Dream TV. "Nowadays, in Egypt there is freedom of expression and that's how it should be," he said.