Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized the Obama administration’s response to the political crisis in Egypt during a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, accused the administration of “snatching failure from the jaws of success.”
“The Obama administration now appears to be wavering on whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people, or just wants a return to stability with a facade of change,” Mr. Ackerman said.
In a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, senior Obama administration officials defended their response, saying it is not for the U.S. to “dictate outcomes” in Egypt.
“The future going forward is going to be determined by the Egyptian people,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
“We don’t see this as a situation where we dictate outcomes, but we do stand for a set of principles and we stand for a process that can make this, as the president said, a moment of opportunity in Egypt and not just a moment of turmoil,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protests have amassed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in cities around the country since Jan. 25 demanding the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and director of policy planning, said the administration has been reiterating its message in private conversations with Egyptian leaders and its other allies that there needs to be “no violence and an end to the harassment and detention, and for the need for political change in Egypt.”
The Obama administration has called for a “process that is broadly inclusive … that includes a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition,” Mr. Rhodes said.
However, the U.S. officials said the Obama administration has had no contact with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to implement Islamic law in Egypt, has been formally banned in the country since 1954.
The transition should include a broad cross-section of the opposition, Mr. Rhodes said.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a part of that, but they are just one part of it and we would like to see a table that is big enough to include representatives of all the groups that are not just protesting, but that also represent the Egyptian people,” he said.
In a phone conversation with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman on Tuesday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. urged that the transition produce “immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to a readout of the call from the White House.
Mr. Rhodes said the course taken by the Egyptian government so far “clearly does not meet the threshold of entering into a meaningful and irreversible set of steps in terms of a transition to a more democratic Egypt.”
In his conversation with Gen. Suleiman, Mr. Biden reaffirmed that the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people.
However, Mr. Ackerman said: “Respecting Egyptian sovereignty is one thing. Maintaining a level of ambiguity so thick that ordinary Egyptians cannot discern whether or not we are on their side is something else altogether.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration had “failed to seize the opportunity to press for reform to address the demonstrators’ frustrations and prevent chaos and violence.”
But, she added, the problem goes further back than the Obama administration’s handling of the situation. She said successive U.S. administrations had failed to develop and implement a longer-term strategy to move beyond the status quo and prepare for the future in Egypt.
“Successive administrations have repeatedly opposed and obstructed efforts by members of Congress to require accountability in ensuring Egypt met conditions for its economic assistance,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said.
Acknowledging that Mr. Mubarak had been a valuable U.S. ally, she added: “It would be short-sighted and potentially dangerous for the United States to base its entire approach to another nation on the survival of one individual.”
Egypt receives annually about $1.3 billion in U.S. aid, much of which goes to the military.
Lawmakers and a panel of Middle East analysts that testified before lawmakers pressed the Obama administration to suspended this aid while the Mubarak regime clings to power.
“We simply cannot afford to be viewed in Egypt as the bankrollers of repression,” Mr. Ackerman said.