MUNICH (Reuters) - The United States backs Egypt’s drive for orderly reforms to allow democratic elections, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday in a sign of a new U.S. emphasis on gradual transition to resolve the crisis over President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Clinton threw her weight behind the reform effort launched by Mubarak’s handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, saying the government’s fragile dialogue with the opposition must be given time to unfold.
“It is important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government actually headed by now-Vice President Omar Suleiman,” Clinton told an audience at a security conference in Munich.
Suleiman began meeting prominent independent opposition figures on Saturday to go through various options, among which the most prominent is a proposal for him to assume the president’s powers for an interim period.
The leadership of Mubarak’s ruling party also quit following 12 days of protests that have shaken Egypt to its core, but protesters dismissed the move as a ruse that would not deter them from their goal of ousting the president.
U.S. officials said Clinton was not explicitly endorsing a future political role for Suleiman, Mubarak’s long-time intelligence chief who is viewed sceptically by many in Egypt’s opposition movement.
U.S. President Barack Obama himself has urged Mubarak to “make the right decision” and U.S. officials have over the past week indicated they believe his days in power may be numbered.
But Clinton, seeking to place renewed emphasis on the process of political transition, underscored the U.S. view that it will take both time and patience to lay the groundwork for truly democratic new elections to take place.
“Our view is the early discussions are the right thing for the government to have initiated and now the opposition should get involved in them to test the proposition that the government is serious,” said one senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified.
Obama has repeatedly urged Mubarak to begin the transition immediately, and Clinton said on Saturday she believed that this process was already under way and should be allowed time to mature.
“The principles are very clear, the operational details are very challenging,” Clinton said of the effort to organise future elections.
“President Mubarak has announced he will not stand for re-election, nor will his son,” Clinton said, noting that the government had also pledged constitutional reforms and allowing greater political participation.
“That is what the government has said it is trying to do, that is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously as possible under the circumstances.”
The U.S. position was further clouded on Saturday by comments from the retired U.S. diplomat who Obama sent as his envoy to speak to Mubarak. Frank Wisner told the Munich meeting by teleconference that Egypt’s long-time strong-man ruler should stay in place — at least for now.
“We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those changes,” Wisner said.
The U.S. official declined to associate himself with Wisner’s comments, saying that Wisner had undertaken his mission to Cairo as a private citizen and did not speak for the U.S. government.
Egypt has dominated Clinton’s schedule at the Munich conference, where she used her speech to warn that the broader Middle East faces a “perfect storm” of unrest unless regional leaders get cracking on political reforms.
Egypt has been a U.S. ally throughout Mubarak’s 30-year tenure and it is strategically vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, control of the Suez Canal and steadfast opposition to militant Islam.
Washington’s approach to the Egyptian crisis is also being closely watched by other U.S.-allied leaders in the region, ranging from oil giant Saudi Arabia to Yemen, now an important frontline state in the battle against al Qaeda.
The United States gives Egypt more than $1.3 billion per year in military aid, giving Washington political leverage, albeit limited.
While eager to extend moral support to the protesters, who have staged 12 days of demonstrations demanding Mubarak leave immediately, both Clinton and Obama have consistently stopped short of calling for the 82-year old ruler to step down.
Clinton said all sectors of Egyptian society would have to be patient and contribute. “This is such a difficult set of decisions for any government to carry out and do so in a way that results in the outcome we’re all seeking,” she said.
reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Ralph Boulton