Middle East

Does the US really want Mubarak to go?

Hillary Clinton, right, US Mid-East envoy George Mitchell, centre, and Tony Blair at a Quartet meeting in Munich. 5 Feb 2011
The Quartet group met in Munich to discuss developments in the Mid-East peace process

The dramatic events in Egypt and the wider Middle East have inevitably overshadowed the meeting of policy-makers gathered at the annual Security Conference here in Munich.

This was the first face-to-face opportunity for key figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to exchange views on the upheavals in the Arab world.

Only one prominent speaker at the conference - former Republican US presidential candidate John McCain - was ready to state in explicit terms that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must go now.

By and large though it is the Obama administration's more nuanced line that represents the consensus here. The emphasis is upon process rather than personality - the need for an orderly transition towards a truly democratic society.

Mrs Clinton rang loud alarm bells about problems in the Middle East as a whole, and not just in Egypt.

"The region is being battered by a perfect storm of converging trends," she said.

Youth unemployment - especially among the better educated - along with new forms of networked communications, depleting resources, dropping water tables and oil reserves that were running out, all meant that "the status quo was unsustainable".

On the vital question - should Egypt's president stand down now - she remained silent.

'Calm rhetoric'

However, a fascinating insight into US thinking was provided by the former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner - the man despatched to Cairo by President Barack Obama earlier this week to give a message to Mr Mubarak.

Mr Wisner joined the conference via video-link from New York. He is a veteran diplomat who knows Egypt and President Mubarak well. He urged people to control their rhetoric - the more that Egyptians hear demands from outside the country for Mr Mubarak to stand down, he argued, the more it could have negative consequences.

Frank Wisner on video-link
Washington later sought to distance itself from Frank Wisner's remarks

The former ambassador set out the familiar US demands - changes to the Egyptian Constitution, respect for minority rights, a free press, free and fair elections and so on.

Crucially he said that in his view Mr Mubarak should stay in office to steer these changes through. It was, he said, the Egyptian president's opportunity to assure his own legacy.

"Mr Mubarak's role remains critical in the days ahead," he said.

Was it the view of just a well-informed expert on Egypt, or a glimpse from Mr Obama's special envoy of the real game plan in Washington?

Mr Wisner said that in the past few days there were "the fragile glimmerings" of change in Egypt. Overall, though, he echoed many here in Munich, in stressing the extreme fragility and danger of the situation.

The failing - some would say failed - peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was also very much on people's minds here, with a meeting of the Quartet - the diplomatic steering group comprising the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - that is struggling to keep the process alive.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told me only yesterday that the upheavals in the region gave added urgency to the need for a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In the event, the Quartet did little more than reiterate its earlier pronouncements. Its call for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to be completed by September seems perhaps almost fanciful - certainly optimistic.

The Quartet did, however, welcome a package of measures agreed by the Israelis for expanding the Palestinian Authority's area of activities and improving access into Gaza. How far these will be implemented remains to be seen.

But in the back of everyone's minds must be the fear that the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere could one day spread to the West Bank and Gaza as well.