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Slowing down the revolution

Mark Mardell | 15:04 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Obama administration is edging towards accepting, if not openly endorsing, an end to Mubarak's rule.

Hillary Clinton

"We want to see an orderly transition so that no-one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She took the highly unusual step of offering herself for all the Sunday morning TV interview shows, which are eagerly watched by Washington policy makers and pundits. Mrs Clinton was repeatedly asked to back, or oppose Mubarak. She side-stepped every opportunity to do either.

The strong impression is that the administration would like him to go and for a new moderate partner to emerge. But they don't want chaos and a power vacuum. Perhaps above all they don't want to give the impression that they are up to their elbows in engineering a change.

They are not denying that the wheels of change are revolving but they want to slow the speed of that revolution. The secretary of state said the question for those on the street was "how we get from where we are to where they want to be", that it would "take time, it's unlikely to be done overnight without grave consequences".

She pointed out there were presidential elections scheduled for September and that they had to be "free and fair and credible" in order that there could be "a peaceful orderly transition to democracy".

My impression is that the Obama administration is working for the change they want through the Egyptian army. After all they give them $1.3bn a year. Mrs Clinton went out of her way to stress the army was well respected, was now instrumental in keeping order without attacking protesters and had a delicate line to walk - and Washington was "encouraging a very careful response".

Some will regard this as Obama pussyfooting. It also reflects the very real difficulty of being a leader of the world whose self-set mission is to restore the USA's global reputation, who doesn't want to look like he's throwing his weight around, yet wants to be on the right side of history without damaging America's national interest. It is a difficult cocktail to mix.

Supporters of George W Bush argue he got it right, by strongly backing the democracy movement, and Obama has got it tragically wrong, by being less idealistic and wrong headedly pragmatic.

This isn't the view of several Republican candidates. John Bolton argues this is an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over, and that they may be behind the demonstrations. Others are even stronger, and less nuanced, and urge the president to back Mubarak. They are taking a gamble. If chaos ensues they may be hailed as clear-sighted. But if there is a peaceful transition to a friendly regime they will have crushed any foreign policy credentials they have.

But the momentum is not with the opposition here, but on the streets of Egypt. They may not give President Obama the time and space he wants for orderly change, but lines between the Pentagon and military HQ in Egypt will be buzzing with advice.


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