- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Tuesday opened talks with a possible successor to embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as the U.S. ramped up outreach to the hundreds of thousands determined to force their long-time leader out of power.

The context of the discussions with Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wasn’t immediately public. But they were taking place as more than a quarter-million Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s main square in defiance of Mr. Mubarak, which signaled the United States is strengthening its push for a peaceful transition to democracy — and looking for alternatives to its ally of three decades.

While the U.S. envoy to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, spoke with Mr. ElBaradei, the escalating anti-government protests led the United States to order non-essential American personnel and their families to leave the country. Respected former ambassador Frank Wisner was visiting members of Mr. Mubarak’s government and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a telephone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart.

“The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has been especially busy in the past several days with an active outreach to political and civil society,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a message posted to Twitter. “As part of our public outreach to convey support for orderly transition in Egypt, Ambassador Scobey spoke today with Mohamed ElBaradei.”

Mr. Wisner, who represented the U.S. in Cairo from 1986 to 1991, was being counted on to provide the U.S. government with an evaluation of the fast-changing situation. “As someone with deep experience in the region, he is meeting with Egyptian officials and providing his assessment,” the State Department said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mr. Mubarak should “step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.”

“It is not enough for President Mubarak to pledge ‘fair’ elections,” Mr. Kerry wrote in the New York Times. “The most important step that he can take is to address his nation and declare that neither he nor the son he has been positioning as his successor will run in the presidential election this year. Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation.”

By midday Tuesday, the administration had yet to make any public comments on the protests or Mr. Mubarak, but renewed a travel warning for Egypt advising Americans to leave and ordering the departure of all non-essential government personnel and their families “in light of recent events.” It was an indication of Washington’s deepening concern about developments in Egypt and replaces a decision last week to allow workers who wanted to leave the country to do so at government expense.

The department said it would continue to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Egypt aboard government-chartered planes.

The U.S. evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on such flights Monday and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Monday’s flights ferried Americans from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey.

On Tuesday, the U.S. added Frankfurt, Germany as a destination and the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor as departure points.

The Cairo airport is open and operating but the department warned that flights may be disrupted and that people should be prepared for lengthy waits.

Egypt’s army leadership is reassuring the U.S. that the powerful military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but is instead allowing protesters to “wear themselves out,” according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers. The Egyptians use a colloquial saying to describe their strategy — a boiling pot with a lid that’s too tight will blow up the kitchen, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

That was always the argument that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, whom Mr. Mubarak tapped as his vice president on Friday, made regarding the handling of the Gaza border crossing point, every time visiting U.S. officials asked their counterparts to stop the smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip — that the best way to head off Gaza unrest is to allow a relief valve that permitted them to bring in supplies.

The officers expressed concern with White House statements appearing to side with the protesters, saying that stoking revolt to remove Mr. Mubarak risks creating a vacuum that the banned-but-powerful Muslim Brotherhood could fill, the official said.

While the Brotherhood claims to have closed its paramilitary wing long ago, it has fought politically to gain power. More threatening to the Mubarak regime, it has built a nationwide charity and social network that much of Egypt’s poverty stricken population depends on for its survival.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Pauline Jelinek and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.