WASHINGTON Talks to resolve Egypt's crisis are making progress, President Barack Obama said on Monday, despite few concrete advances between President Hosni Mubarak's government and protesters demanding his immediate ouster.
Washington has thrown its support behind a transition effort launched by Mubarak's hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, urging all sides to allow time for an "orderly transition" to a new political order in Egypt, for decades a strategic U.S. ally.
"Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path and they're making progress," Obama told reporters while returning to the White House after a speech to a business group.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged there were doubts in Egypt and elsewhere about the credibility of the process and fears it could simply rubber-stamp a transition to another authoritarian administration.
"Our advice would be: test the seriousness of the government and those who are participating to see if it can deliver," Crowley told a news briefing.
But he said the United States remains concerned the current process is not broad-based enough.
Mubarak, 82, has refused calls to end his 30-year presidency before elections in September, saying his resignation would cause chaos. The Obama administration has warned that attempts to force immediate change could require elections before the opposition is ready.
Crowley said it was unlikely satisfactory polls could take place within the 60-day period required by Egypt's constitution in the event the president steps down.
"That would be a challenging undertaking," he said.
U.S. 'DOESN'T PICK LEADERS'
The cautious U.S. approach comes as Washington's planners try to assess the impact of Egypt's crisis on Arab allies, some already facing similar unrest, and on Israel.
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel and commands an important strategic position as the guardian of the Suez Canal and the Suez-Mediterranean oil pipeline, both important energy conduits for the West.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the Egyptian turmoil should not impede U.S.-led efforts to relaunch direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but Israeli officials have expressed concern that any successor government in Egypt may follow a radical Islamist line.
Egyptian opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, held talks with government representatives on Sunday but emerged saying their core demand for Mubarak's immediate exit had not been resolved.
The United States has been cool to the prospect of participation by the Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential Islamist group whose main foreign ally is the Palestinian Hamas movement -- which both the United States and the European Union regard as a terrorist organization.
The White House on Monday expressed concern about the Brotherhood's "anti-American rhetoric," echoing comments by Obama in a television interview on Sunday. But it stopped short of saying the United States would be against the Brotherhood taking a role in any future Egyptian government.
"The United States doesn't pick leaders of other countries," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, saying the key requirement was that participants adhere to the rule of law, respect the constitution and renounce violence.
The Obama administration has not openly called on Mubarak to step aside but sent former diplomat Frank Wisner to Cairo last week to deliver a "blunt, candid" message to the Egyptian leader.
The State Department said on Monday it was aware Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, was employed by a Washington lobbying firm with ties to Mubarak's government but did not believe this dented his credibility.
"We felt he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Mohammad Zargham)