The New York Times led today’s paper with a claim that Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman was “leading an American endorsed ‘orderly transition” in Egypt.
In recent days, it has at times appeared that this is the case. On Monday, PJ Crowley, the spokesman for the State Department, noted that it “would be a challenging undertaking” if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, since it could force elections in 60 days. Hillary Clinton also seemed to praise the process Suleiman began over the weekend, meeting with certain opposition groups, as a good start.
As the week has gone on, however, there have been clear signs that the White House is distancing itself from Suleiman. Yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Suleiman’s comments about Egypt not being ready for democracy “unhelpful.” Later in the afternoon, the White House released an extensive readout of Vice President Joe Biden’s latest phone call with Suleiman, including an American request to rein in the Ministry of the Interior, rescind the emergency law, and broaden participation in the negotiations.
On Wednesday morning, I spoke with Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, and he made it clear that the U.S. is not endorsing, at least in public, the Suleiman process. “The proposals put forward by Vice President Suleiman were clearly not sufficient,” Rhodes said of the events last weekend. “We don’t accept that there can be a transition in Egypt that goes through suppression.”
I asked if President Obama held Suleiman responsible for the detentions and beatings at the hands of the Egyptian Interior Ministry. “What’s clear is that the government as a whole has responsibility,” Rhodes answered. “The government has to retrain the Interior Ministry. We don’t accept that you can wall off responsibility through different elements of the government.”
Rhodes continued by dismissing the argument made by some analysts that the U.S. is seeking to slow the pace of change in Egypt to ensure an orderly transition. “The stability argument runs both ways,” Rhodes said. “There is a clear sense of instability that emanates from the status quo.” White House officials remain concerned that if Suleiman fails to set up a meaningful, legitimate transition, then violence could again fill the streets.
“We don’t support any individual, Vice President Suleiman or anybody else, as a designated leader of this,” Rhodes continued. “We support a process.” And right now, it is clear, that President Obama does not see Suleiman putting that process into place just yet.