Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Presidential Palace in Cairo. (Photo: Mark Neyman, GPO)
Washington - The Egyptian military's failure Wednesday to keep pro- and anti-government forces from clashing violently in Cairo's Tahrir Square provided persuasive evidence that the army has no intention of helping force President Hosni Mubarak from office, U.S. officials said.
That observation was a sign of a growing gap between the U.S. and Egypt over the Obama administration's insistence that a transition to a new government begin quickly and Mubarak's determination to serve out the months that remain in his presidential term.
American officials acknowledged Wednesday that President Barack Obama's special envoy to Egypt, former U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner, was firmly rebuffed when he tried to persuade Mubarak to leave government before elections scheduled for September.
Mubarak's vice president, Omar Suleiman, also told Wisner that Mubarak would not step down before his mandate officially ends, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke anonymously because he was discussing delicate diplomatic negotiations.
The official said Mubarak told Wisner he wanted to lead the transition to a new government. "He has a narrow amount of time to prove he can lead a credible process," the official said.
Reinforcing the growing breach between Cairo and Washington, Egypt's Foreign Ministry released a statement that rejected Obama's call for the political transition in Egypt to "begin now."
The impasse signaled that the crisis was unlikely to be resolved soon and added to the likelihood that Friday would prove to be another key moment. That's the day demonstrators have pledged to step up their campaign if Mubarak has not stepped down.
Until Wednesday, analysts of the Egyptian military had expressed uncertainty about how it would deal with the challenge to Mubarak's rule. Some commentators had even wondered if the army secretly sympathized with the anti-government protesters, who were allowed to clamber over tanks and festoon them with anti-Mubarak graffiti.
U.S. officials and military observers said that uncertainty disappeared as the army stood by as the clashes unfolded — though they praised the military's course.
The military's inaction was the appropriate response for a force that intends to remain above politics, even as some frustrated Egyptians saw the inaction as evidence that the army had sided with Mubarak and not democracy.
"The interests of the state and the interests of the president have not diverged," said Jon Alterman, Middle East director for the Washington-D.C. based Center for Strategic and International Security. "I think more violence would have to happen before the military reexamines its role. It must reach levels that enough people question the legitimacy of the state."
The military should not intervene, U.S. officials and military experts agreed, unless the sanctity of the state is in jeopardy.
"That is the expectation," said one U.S. official, who agreed to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It is only an issue if the state and the government collapse."
The onus for restoring order, U.S. military analysts said, must fall on the police — one of Egypt's most mistrusted forces and one that is plainly identified with pro-Mubarak violence. Taking a more active role would brand the army as backing one side or the other, officials said, and damage its credibility as the symbol of Egyptian nationalism.
Pentagon officials said top-level U.S. military officers have conveyed that message repeatedly in recent days to their Egyptian counterparts.
As the clashes unfolded, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, held a 10-minute phone conversation with Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the Egyptian army's chief of staff in which Mullen expressed confidence in the army's professionalism.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also spoke to his counterpart, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's defense minister. Pentagon officials refused to characterize the conversation, however, or to say how long it lasted.
David Lamm, deputy director of the Near East and South Asia Center at the Pentagon's National Defense University, said the center was in contact with some of the scores of Egyptian military officers who have taken courses there on such subjects as civil-military relations.
"The military is showing restraint," Lamm said. "What we continue to monitor from our friends is that we suspect that the army will remain a stabilizing factor as the political situation works itself out. That would be the best possible outcome."
Some experts, however, expressed concern that the message the U.S. military is conveying by praising the Egyptian military's restraint actually is working against the Obama administration's hopes that Mubarak will leave — and relieve one source of pressure on Egypt's political scene.
Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University, called on Obama to threaten a cutoff of the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid that goes to the Egyptian military if Mubarak does not step down.
"That is a message to the Egyptian army, that its relationship with the U.S. could be in jeopardy," Shehata said. "Until today, they've done well and they haven't engaged negatively with the protesters. But it's not clear that they didn't facilitate or at least not prevent what happened today."