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Will the genie grant Washington's wishes?

Mark Mardell | 00:29 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011

Protesters in Cairo

Western diplomats say that the US administration's policy on Egypt has undergone a definite change in the past 24 hours. Cynics may observe it is not the first flip and may not be the last flop. More generous souls might reflect that the US, like Keynes, is responding to an ever-shifting reality.

Let's step back for a moment, and trace those twists and turns. After an initially very rocky response, in which the Egyptian government was described as "stable", the US government backed swift change and urged an end to violence. Troops appeared on the streets and a vice-president was appointed. The administration felt it was getting results. A message was delivered to President Hosni Mubarak. He made a speech saying he would resign in September. That wasn't quite good enough. The administration adopted an increasingly easy to break code, which translated as "Mubarak must go".

The culmination of this phase was President Barack Obama's short news conference, putting himself firmly on the side of the demonstrators, urging Mr Mubarak to listen to them and behave like a patriot.

The Egyptian president did not take the hint. Making the best of a bad job, the US then focused not on the personality, but the process. Over the weekend, it seemed to have some faith that Vice-President Omar Suleiman, who'd invited the opposition to take part in negotiations, could deliver what Washington wanted, while Mr Mubarak disappeared, not from the scene, but from public gaze and relevance.

Now Mr Obama's advisers think their faith may have been misplaced.

Mr Suleiman isn't delivering even a fraction of what they want and they don't think he's serious. They are increasingly concerned at the detentions and beatings. They have made getting rid of the emergency law, which has been in effect for 30 years, a symbol of real change.

This was the response of Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, talking on US broadcaster PBS:

"I was really amazed, because, because right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed. How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I'm in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control to stabilise the nation, to stabilise the state and then we would look into the issue."

So the White House is toughening its language, too.

Mr Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has said that protests in Egypt will only get bigger and bigger if the government doesn't quicken the pace of reform.

He said it was clear that the Egyptian government's action has yet to meet the minimum threshold for the people of Egypt. He used the word "threshold" about five times during his briefing.

Mr Gibbs, grasping at a suitably Middle Eastern image, said the notion that the genie could be put back in the bottle had long gone.

The administration seems to be hoping the genie can grant its three wishes, for no violence, real change, and a road map to elections.

But as all readers of The Thousand and One Nights know, these spirits are potentially dangerous allies, with their own agendas.

The White House is in a sense trapped by the necessary niceties of its insistence that it doesn't want to dictate democracy to another country. So the rubric is that it's not what America wants, but what the Egyptian people want. But that doesn't just mean backing the aspiration of the demonstrators. It means the size and continuation of the protests become their yardstick of progress.

But without the assistance of an ifrit, it is hard to see how the US gets what it wants. America is urging its allies around the world to deliver the message about change. But the US has few levers, beyond exhortation. What about all that aid, you say? The subject has been raised again. Mr Gibbs said the administration was reviewing its aid programme to Egypt - "we are watching quite closely" - and the Egyptian government's restraint and reform would "determine what that aid will look like".

I suspect that lever is being used to make sure the army keeps the peace, and it is not available for less important heavy lifting. What I don't know is if the US has really given up on Mr Suleiman and is waiting to see what happens next, or whether it really hopes one last heave can change the scenery. But there is still faith that the genie of change grants its wishes.


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