WASHINGTON – The White House asked on Monday for a range of actors, including religious elements, to participate in the more representative Egyptian government the US is calling for.
“It is clear that increasing democratic representation has to include a whole host of important nonsecular actors,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. He stressed he was not weighing in on whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should go.
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Instead, he called for “meaningful negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people, including opposition groups,” to provide greater freedoms as part of the “orderly transition” America supports.
Gibbs declined to address directly the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood should Mubarak be toppled, pointing out that the protesters calling for his ouster represent a wide swath of the country rather than a particular constituency.
Gibbs did, however, criticize Mubarak for not taking sufficient steps to respond to the demands of demonstrators who have not been satisfied by his moves to change the government and appoint Omar Suleiman, the longtime intelligence chief and a close confidant, to the new position of vice president.
“This is not about appointments, it’s about actions,” Gibbs said. “It is obvious that there’s more work to be done. That is obvious in the pictures we continue to see from Cairo.”
Gibbs acknowledged the challenge of forming America’s message amid the unrest in Egypt, which he called “a cornerstone for stability in the region” as well as a key partner in Arab-Israeli peace.
“It’s always important that our words not contribute to great volatility,” he said.
Gibbs noted that the US continues to review its aid to Egypt, a $1.5 billion annual package comprised mostly of military assistance.
New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman on Monday said that the US is not acting fast enough on aid or lending sufficient support to the protesters. He called on Mubarak to step down.
“The United States must suspend its assistance to Egypt until this transition is under way,” said Ackerman, the presumed ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee.
“The Egyptian people have made their wishes very clear,” he declared. “It is time for President Mubarak to step down and allow Egypt to move forward into a new era of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, US military forces have moved into Cairo to secure the American embassy, while the government arranged chartered flights to help thousands of US citizens leave the country.
Also on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened the country’s first global meeting of US ambassadors, comprising the top diplomats from almost all of America’s 260 embassies, consulates and other similar offices from more than 180 countries.
The meeting at the State Department was long planned to discuss US foreign policy in the coming year, but the crisis in Egypt, which comes on top of WikiLeak’s publishing of troves of diplomatic cables touching on sensitive Middle East issues, focused the conversation on the region. Clinton was expected to use the opportunity to meet directly with ambassadors from the key countries affected by the recent developments.
US officials have also been talking to Egyptian counterparts, businessmen and opposition figures.
Gibbs said that the US has an “ongoing” conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency who has emerged a central opposition figure, but said he was not aware of any discussion between him and US officials in the past week.
American officials have also been consulting with outside experts on the path forward, as the US walks a difficult path between supporting the demands of Egyptians for more freedom and a potentially democratic system – but one that could also elevate anti-US and Islamist voices – or bolstering an important American ally in the region whose treatment by his own people and the US will be watched closely by other Arab potentates whose support Washington counts on.
Gibbs said that whatever ends up happening, “It is our hope and our strong belief that that is a role that Egypt will continue to play for a long time going forward.”