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Obama's behind-the-scenes efforts in Egypt

Mark Mardell | 18:31 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

Protesters at evening prayer near tanks in Egypt


US President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs continues to dodge the question “should Mubarak go?”

He says that is “not for me, not for our country or our government to determine”.

He also says “the way Egypt looks and operates must change”. He even has a shopping list of what “must happen".

Negotiations with the political opposition. Free and fair elections. More freedoms. More openness. Changes in the constitution. But he was not going to talk about the central demand of the demonstrators.

Nevertheless, the buzz in Washington is that the Obama administration is working behind the scenes to ensure Mr Mubarak goes and the army takes charge until there can be new elections. One source thinks it has got down to the detail of where Mr Mubarak goes, how much money he takes with him and whether he is immune from prosecution.

This may all be diplomatic gossip and wishful think tanking but it is a near unanimous view.

An insider tells me that the administration can’t pull the plug because of the alarm that would cause to all the other authoritarian allies in the region but  “I don’t think anybody thinks he can stay: the conversations have changed and all the talk is about an ordered transition.”

He adds that the regime is listening but hasn’t got the message. “Mubarak seems to be out of touch, acting as if it is all a Muslim Brotherhood plot. He’s 82, Vice-President Omar Suleiman is 74, the chief of staff is 75, this really is the old guard in a country where the population is very young.” 

The relationship between the United States and the Egyptian army is strong and could be critical. One well-placed source has told the BBC that lines are buzzing between Washington and Cairo, with talk of the new vice-president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman organising the transition. "$1.7bn in aid buys you the capacity to have that conversation," says the source.

In fact all but a measly $400m of that aid goes to the Egyptian military. There are other ties that bind. Every year for the past 30 years, the Egyptian and US armies have held joint manoeuvres, Operation Bright Star , which have grown in importance and most recently also included Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Greece, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, France and Pakistan.

Just in the past month, one American company has won a $20m contract to provide Egypt with "ground surveillance hardware", another a $7m deal to provide the Egyptian engineering corps with vehicles. Omar Suleiman has long been the main contact for the CIA in the Middle East, its favourite anti-Jihadist guru. A few days ago, the Egyptian chief of staff was an honoured guest at the Pentagon. I would love to have been a fly on the wall.

Shortly after President Barack Obama called for the repression and violence to stop, the Egyptian army appeared on the streets. The police disappeared. The repression and violence stopped. Is this causality or coincidence ?

A former senior US state department Egypt expert, Graeme Bannerman, who has subsequently worked as a consultant for the Egyptian government and is now with the Middle East Institute, is not sure it works like that. He told me that the Egyptian army thinks the police are badly trained and brutal, and that the army has "sympathy for the protesters, they don't want chaos, but see themselves as protectors of the Egyptian people and will do whatever they believe is best for their country".

He thinks that American influence is more subtle than hasty conversations, and is more about 30 years of training the officers of a professional army that has a sense of responsibility and a distaste for the idea of firing on its own population. He agrees that Mr Mubarak's fate has been decided, but those who remain don't want it to seem they have been pushed around by the demonstrators so the "million man march" expected on Tuesday will be critical.

"For the last three days, things have been moving in the right direction, but tomorrow is scary. The progress can be upset if there is violence. If things get out of control the army may act differently because chaos is not acceptable," Mr Bannerman says.

But his sense is that a huge, calm, demonstration under the watchful eye of the army will be another turning point.


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