Growing crowds of protesters are demanding the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the person most likely to determine the country’s immediate future is a different figure altogether: newly-appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman.
Suleiman, a former intelligence chief, is emerging as the central player in the back-channel communications between Washington and Cairo about the timing and structure of the country’s first real elections in more than 30 years. Mubarak, who has ruled the country for that long, has already announced that neither he nor his son will take part in the vote.
When Vice President Joe Biden wanted to discuss the pace and scope of Egypt’s political reforms on Tuesday, for instance, he called Suleiman, not Mubarak. White House officials said Biden pressed Suleiman to immediately rescind the country’s hated emergency law, which Mubarak has used for decades to stifle dissent; stop arresting journalists and protesters; and invite a broader swath of the country’s opposition to participate in talks about the timing of Egypt’s next elections. The White House declined to comment on how Suleiman responded to Biden’s requests.
Suleiman’s ascent poses difficult questions for the Obama administration, which is struggling to balance its commitment to democratic ideals with its fears that Egypt’s ongoing political crisis could lead to the emergence of a government which is far less friendly to the U.S. or Israel.
In public comments, the White House has demanded that Egypt begin an “immediate” and “meaningful” political transition, but refused to call for Mubarak to step down. The caution reflects the long-standing American belief in the importance of maintaining stability in Egypt, which successive administrations have seen as a linchpin of American policy throughout the Middle East.
Suleiman himself has irked the White House by rebuffing an informal proposal that he help usher Mubarak into a ceremonial role while assuming de facto control over the country until presidential elections can be held this fall. Obama administration officials have also expressed unease about Suleiman’s repeated public assertions that the crowds in Tahrir Square were being manipulated by unspecified outside forces and that Egypt itself wasn’t yet ready for democracy.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs chided Suleiman for those remarks in unusually strong language on Tuesday, calling them “particularly unhelpful.”
“I don’t think [Suleiman's remarks] in any way squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress,” Gibbs told reporters.
Despite such criticism, senior Obama administration officials have made clear that they trust Suleiman to guide Egypt toward its post-Mubarak future.
“It is important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government actually headed by now-Vice President Omar Suleiman," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a security conference in Munich last weekend.
The administration’s embrace of Suleiman has alarmed many pro-democracy advocates and Egypt experts, who argue that nothing in Suleiman’s background suggests he is prepared to make a meaningful break with the Mubarak era by instituting far-reaching political reforms.
“The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smokescreen,” an influential group of analysts known as the Working Group on Egypt wrote in letters to Obama and Clinton. “What we seek in Egypt is not the current regime without the Mubarak family, but a true transition to democracy and an open political system.”
Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert who helped draft the letter, said she was “disappointed” by the White House’s decision to so publicly back Suleiman.
“I don’t see why the U.S. should throw its weight behind Suleiman at this point, since all he’s offering is a continuation of the current government with some minor cosmetic changes,” she told National Journal. “All those kinds of comments do is undercut the protesters just when they most need our support.”
Still, the events of the past few days have underscored just how momentous it is that a transition is now underway in Egypt. For better or for worse, the Mubarak era is drawing to a close. Suleiman’s turn in the limelight, by contrast, may be just beginning.