January 29, 2011 / 10:23 PM / 6 years ago

Scenarios: U.S. walks tightrope between Mubarak, protesters

6 Min Read

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States pressed Egyptian Hosni Mubarak on Saturday to make political reforms, walking a fine line between supporting the democratic ideals of protesters without outright abandoning an ally of 30 years.

Having dismissed his Cabinet, Mubarak sought to shore up his rule with two military men, tapping intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Egypt's first vice president in three decades and former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister.

Here are some of the U.S. policy options:

Balancing Act (Most Likely)

The United States has stepped up calls for Mubarak's government to make political and economic reforms and to restrain security forces from attacking protesters.

But it has also made clear it is not abandoning Mubarak, at least for now, and that it is looking to work with the Egyptian government to undertake reforms.

The result is a balancing act that analysts suggest aims to position the United States to be able to work with whoever prevails -- the Mubarak government or its successor.

"The tightrope that the administration has to walk is that the regime probably is going to survive," said Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

"The history of revolutions is that they only succeed when the government loses the will or the capability to use violence and so far there is nothing that is happening in Egypt that suggests that either one is going to happen."

U.S. President Barack Obama met for just over an hour on Saturday with his national security advisers, and the White House said he stressed "our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform."

It appeared unlikely the White House, or the protesters, would view Suleiman and Shafiq's appointments as steps in the right direction.

"I can't think of a worse appointment than Omar Suleiman as the vice president of Egypt. He is the symbol of the police state," said Council on Foreign Relations analyst Robert Danin. "His appointment is just going to antagonize the protesters,"

However, he said it might be a step to ensure the loyalty of the military and a precursor to Mubarak eventually leaving office.

Backing Mubarak to the Hilt (Unlikely)

Mubarak, a former air force officer who replaced assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, has been a vital U.S. partner because of his support for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, his backing for a wider Arab-Israeli peace and his help on counterterrorism and other issues.

Stability in Egypt for the past three decades has been of immense value to Israel, which has not had to worry about its Egyptian flank since the 1979 peace treaty that flowed from the Camp David Accords brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

If it were to offer Mubarak unstinting support, the United States would run the risk of being on the wrong side of history and of sticking with an authoritarian leader whose forces have used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against protesters.

While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Mubarak government as stable on Tuesday, the administration has gradually shifted its emphasis, making its calls for reform more pointed and on Friday telling Cairo to "restrain" its security forces.

On Friday, Obama spoke to Mubarak by telephone and said he had told the Egyptian leader he must keep his word to create a better democracy with more economic opportunity.

"What's needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people: a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens, and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice," Obama said.

To offer Mubarak uncritical support risks antagonizing not only Egyptians but also Arabs throughout the region, many of whom deeply resent Washington for backing their authoritarian leaders, supporting Israel and invading Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abandoning or Sanctioning Mubarak (Least Likely)

If the Obama administration were to turn its back on Mubarak, it could take a number of steps, including:

-- cutting off some or all of the $1.3 billion in military aid and roughly $250 million in economic assistance Washington gives Cairo annually;

-- demanding the United Nations Security Council take up the issue of Egypt's crackdown on the protesters;

-- condemning the crackdown in public;

-- telling Mubarak behind the scenes that he should go.

None of these seems likely yet, although the White House said on Friday: "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days."

If the violence were to worsen, or it were to become clear Mubarak had no intention of allowing political reform, analysts said the chances of a partial aid suspension would rise.

Cutting off such a long-standing ally could send a chilling signal to other U.S. allies that Washington cannot be relied upon and perhaps push them toward closer ties with others such as China or Iran.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, on Saturday said the United States had limited influence.

"Trying to steer the actions of someone who believes his life's work may be crumbling before his eyes is a difficult proposition," he said.

Editing by Vicki Allen

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