Following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement he will not run for president again and the Egyptian protesters' apparent rejection of that concession, it's clear is that even if "envoy" Frank Wisner's mission to Cairo was a success, the Obama administration isn't out of the woods yet on this crisis.
Obama sent Wisner to deliver the message to Mubarak that he should announce he will not run for reelection in September and provide for the orderly transition to a more democratic government. Mubarak's concessions apparently didn't go quite as far as the administration wanted in detailing the terms of such a transition. But administration officials are saying Tuesday night they now realize that even if Mubarak had done everything they asked, that was not going to be enough to satisfy the protesters.
On Tuesday night, following Mubarak's remarks, Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in Egypt. "We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States," he said, adding that the transition "must begin now."
Nevertheless, the progress made so far has not been enough to end the standoff or repair the protesters' view of the United States, and the Obama administration now must figure out its role in what could become protracted negotiations between Mubarak and the opposition.
"Now there's a strategic game going on between the Obama administration and Mubarak," said the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook, who was in Cairo when the protests broke out. The White House should have known anything short of Mubarak stepping down immediately would not end the crisis, he said.
"Either the administration has some other strategy or they didn't realize that there's the potential for Mubarak to take the opportunity of the next few months to manipulate the political process to favor whomever he wants to follow him," Cook said. "I can't believe they thought this would satisfy the crowds."
Of course, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can point to Mubarak's Tuesday night speech in order to hold him to account if the president doesn't actually move to hold free and fair elections. But the Egyptian people, who were already angry about U.S. support for Mubarak, aren't likely to see that as a helpful stance by the Obama team.
"Everybody in Egypt knows we have enabled this regime. At this point we need to get out of the way," said Cook.
Perhaps the administration doesn't want to completely burn its relationship with Mubarak, just in case he actually prevails, but that ship might have already sailed. "The relationship is never going to be the same again, there's going to be hostility anyway, so they might as well double down [on the side of the protesters]," Cook said. "The jig is up."
According to a readout of today's national security meeting at the White House, the Obama administration is still calling for an "orderly transition" to greater democracy in Egypt - a position first outlined by Clinton on Jan. 30.
"With regard to Egypt, Secretary Clinton discussed our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House stated.
Behind the scenes, there are increasing signs the administration is reaching out to opposition leaders. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei; a senior State Department official also said that she will be speaking with other opposition leaders.
But while Wisner, who is known for being close to Mubarak and his people, might be a perfect "envoy" to send to deal with Mubarak, he's not likely to be the American in the best position to reach out to the opposition groups. That would require a diplomat with close and personal relationships with various non-governmental entities in Egypt.
To be sure, administration officials both in Washington and Cairo have extensive ties with various opposition elements in Egypt and are in contact with them on a regular basis. But if the Obama administration wanted to quickly ramp up its engagement with the opposition, a new envoy could do the trick.
We're told that the administration is now considering a new, different envoy to send to Cairo to fulfill that very mission and the administration is focusing on another former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. The most likely candidates who fit that description are Daniel Kurtzer, an ambassador in Cairo under President Clinton with strong ties to the Obama team, Ned Walker, another Clinton-era ambassador and a former president of the Middle East Institute, and Frank Ricciardone, the ambassador before Scobey and current ambassador to Turkey.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that it might be better to keep the administration's preparations for what promises to be a radical shift in Egypt's political terrain on a lower level than another unofficial envoy, instead depending on the people who have been working with Egyptian civil society groups on the ground.
"Sending a new ‘envoy' to reach out to opposition groups would send a strong signal, but you need someone who really understands and has relationships with a wide range of figures there," he said.
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