The Obama administration scrambled Sunday to clarify its stance on Egypt after a U.S. envoy appeared to suggest embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should remain in power.
One day after Frank G. Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, suggested Mr. Mubarak remain, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic Sen. John Kerry said the U.S. wants a smooth transition to a more democratic society.
“We deeply respect the many years of service that Frank Wisner has provided to our country,” Mrs. Clinton told NPR. “But he does not speak for the American government. …We have been very clear from the beginning that we wanted to see an orderly transition.”
Mr. Wisner, apparently sent to Egypt to quietly deliver the message to Mr. Mubarak that he must relinquish power, said the Egyptian president’s leadership is critical and the transition “is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward.”
He added that Mr. Mubarak must stay in office “to steer those changes,” which would be an opportunity for him to “write his own legacy.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of the Egyptian opposition party Muslim Brotherhood, said Mr. Wisner’s statement caused “a lot of confusion” in his country.
Mr. Kerry, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attempted to ease the new concerns by saying the administration has never wavered.
“The United States’ position is crystal clear,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “President [Obama] wants change; he wants it immediately.”
He also said Mr. Mubarak should “step aside gracefully” and that Mr. Wisner was “speaking from himself” about the country’s constitutional process but nevertheless failed in his mission.
“I think that Mr. Wisner’s comments just don’t reflect where the administration has been from Day One, and that was not the message that he was asked to deliver or did deliver,” said Mr. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.
The exchange is just the latest evidence of the difficulty the administration has had in crafting an official response to the revolutionary crisis that started 13 days ago in the streets of Cairo.
While Mr. Obama wants to show respect and gratitude toward the Mubarak government, a longtime U.S. ally and a stabilizing force in the Middle East, administration officials also have tried to make clear that Egypt must move toward a more democratic society with fair, open elections and greater economic opportunities.
Mrs. Clinton repeated Sunday that Egyptians must decide whether Mr. Mubarak remains in power or resigns immediately.
She said the U.S. supports the reform efforts promised by newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman and that having the political group Muslim Brotherhood participating in discussions about Egypt’s future appears to be a positive sign.
“I think the Egyptian people are looking for an orderly transition that can lead to free and fair elections,” she said. “That’s what the United States has consistently supported.”
Mr. Kerry also attempted to clarify another surprising comment from the administration, the statement last week by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that the upheaval in Egypt “has not just taken us, but many people, by surprise.”
Mr. Kerry said everybody knew about the “pent-up” demand for reform and that the trigger was the unrest in Tunisia, followed by outcries on social-media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Nobody, the senator said, could have predicted the “moment and manner” in which the revolution in Egypt would occur.