What does the U.S. want?
Principally, an ally in the region that will not further destabilize the Arab-Israeli peace process, that will not complicate dealings with Iran, that will not (significantly) threaten Saudi Arabia’s intra-Arab political aspirations while simultaneously containing them. The reality by late last week, as Obama and his advisers came to conclude, was that Egypt 2.0 would be a reforming Egypt as well. The sooner Mubarak understood this, the better. And of course, given that the protesters focused so cleanly on Mubarak as the source of their discontent, he would have to go. But Obama insisted that his team not call for regime change. For one thing, though protesters might suddenly experience a flood of positive feeling toward the United States, given the general level of anti-U.S. hostility inside the country, at least as assessed by intelligence reports, any government seen as being endorsed by the U.S. would risk legitimacy in the long-run.
“We recognize that the bar on the street is set at a place we could never possibly reach,” the administration official said. “They want the U.S. to declare Mubarak needs to leave now. We’re not in the business of regime change.”
“As the president said in Cairo, Bush’s freedom agenda has turned into a proxy for regime change, like getting rid of some leaders and replacing them with leaders more friendly to the U.S.,” the official said.” “The president believes that for these reforms to be real and lasting, these reforms need to be indigenous and lasting and pushed by the people.”
It became U.S. policy to nudge Mubarak to a place where he considered it his best option to step aside and allow for free elections – truly free elections – as he had promised to do. By not pressing him to resign immediately, the U.S. was giving Mubarak a graceful way to exit. At around 4:15 p.m. on Friday, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was holding a deputies committee meeting on another subject when Obama suddenly walked in – “crashed the thing” – was how participants put it – and “told everyone he wanted to call Mubarak and speak to the nation about Egypt.”
The president walked back up to the Oval Office and stopped just outside the door. His assistant, Katie Johnson, was watching Mubarak’s first televised address to Egypt on her television set, and Obama lingered to see what Mubarak had to say. It was insufficient. A short, midnight Cairo time statement dissolving his government (and reconstituting it with former officials) would not satisfy the demands of the protesters. Mubarak had calculated that his vice presidential appointment of Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence minister who had helped the U.S. render terrorism suspects, and who probably has the best relationship with Israel of all of Mubarak’s senior advisers, would pacify the West. (The U.S. has been urging Mubarak to appoint a vice president for decades).
A few minutes later, Mubarak was on the phone. “The president told him that he was going to speak to the American people and would be clear about what he expected out of Egypt, but he was also clear that the U.S. government was not in the business of regime change and that Egypt was our ally,” was how another administration official who was privy to the details of the call put it.
As he had in private discussions, Obama said the U.S. would publicly call for four discrete changes: One, an end to the emergency law. Two, free and fair elections. Three, constitutional changes to allow for more freedom of expression. Four, a real dialog with the opposition. Without giving Mubarak an ultimatum, Obama made it clear that the status quo was no longer operative. Obama made sure that Mubarak understood how much the U.S. valued its relationship with Egypt, and pointedly “noted that the U.S. was resisting political pressure to call for Mubarak to resign,” an aide said. He implied that U.S. patience was not infinite but it was tactical: the U.S. calculated that the protests would dim if Egyptians really believed that change was on the way. But that was as far as the U.S. policy of non-interference would go. Every action taken by Egypt from then on would be watched.
To say that the National Security staff was in panic mode would be inaccurate. Tired and wary, they spent the first few hours of daylight Saturday preparing for a principals committee meeting later that day to assess Egypt and burgeoning protests elsewhere in the region. A few American allies, like Jordan, were sufficiently worried about simmering tensions inside their own countries that they asked the U.S. to avoid mentioning any government to government contacts. That day, the National Security staff and the State Department asked Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who was known to be close to Mubarak, to travel to the region at his earliest convenience. He would not be given the task of urging Mubarak to step down but his presence there would remind Egypt’s political leaders that the United States expected constant progress.
Donilon had his staff send invitations to a dozen Egypt experts. Later in the day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked to his counterpart in Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, then to Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barack. The read-out was positive: Tantawi was urging restraint, and Israel and Egypt were already discussing contingency plans in the event of – the biblical allusion was noted –a mass exodus out of cities.
On Saturday night, several members of Obama’s team allowed themselves a rare break, joining the president and senior adviser David Axelrod at a party celebrating his return to a normal life. But the White House Situation Room’s duty officers kept sending over bulletins. There were plenty of heads bobbing up and down, checking Blackberries. The watchword by Sunday was “orderly transition.” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated it to his counterpart, the Egyptian military’s chief of staff, Gen. Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, that morning. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the phrase on all five Sunday shows. When Obama’s press team sent reporters a “read out” about his calls to the region’s leaders, it also included the phrase. “The military is very much aware of what we expect and everything they’ve said to us privately tracks with what they’ve done in public,” the first administration official said.
Correction: an early version of this story erroneously implied that Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian.