By Lolita C. Baldor
WASHINGTON: The US appealed for an orderly transition to lasting democracy in Egypt even as escalating violence in the American ally threatened Mideast stability and put President Barack Obama in a diplomatic bind.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday refused to speculate on the future of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or his teetering government. But US officials, she said, “obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not to imposing any ideology on Egyptians.”
She warned against a takeover resembling the one in Iran, with a “small group that doesn’t represent the full diversity of Egyptian society” seizing control and imposing its ideological beliefs.
Clinton’s comments came as the Obama administration tried to get a handle on the fast-moving situation in Egypt, a critical US friend in the long quest for peace in the Middle East. Left largely unsaid is the growing fear that a government hostile to the US could gain control of such a large and important Arab nation.
The US wants to see “real democracy” emerge in Egypt, Clinton said, “not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that then leads to what we saw in Iran.”
Clinton, in interviews on the five Sunday morning TV shows, repeatedly stressed that Egypt’s future lies in the hands of its people, hewing to the administration line of refusing to take sides publicly in the upheaval.
While there have been repeated calls for Egypt to move toward democracy, it was not clear what efforts the administration may be making behind the scenes to influence the situation.
Obama called foreign leaders this weekend to convey his administration’s desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government in Egypt. The White House said he spoke with leaders from Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and sought their input. The president also got a briefing Sunday morning from his national security staff, and senior policy officials gathered for a deputies committee meeting to discuss the situation in Egypt.
Clinton made clear there are no discussions at this time about cutting off aid to Egypt, which receives about $1.5 billion in annual foreign assistance from the US to help modernize its armed forces and strengthen regional security and stability. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had said Friday that military and civilian aid was under review.
Asked if aid should be withheld, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the US should wait and see what happens before making such decisions.
While Clinton did not voice support for a continued Mubarak reign or any other political party, she outlined US expectations from any future government.
“There has to be a commitment by whoever is in the government that they will engage in a national dialogue with the people of Egypt, with the aim at taking actions that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people for more participation, for respect for human rights, for the universal human rights they are entitled to, for economic reforms that will give more opportunity,” she told reporters traveling with her to Haiti on Sunday.
Asked if she thought Mubarak had taken the necessary steps so far to hold on, Clinton said: “It’s not a question of who retains power. It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path. Clearly, the path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future, that economic opportunity that people in the peaceful protests are seeking.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demurred when asked if the US should abandon support of Mubarak. He said the US needs to “be on the right side of history” and do a better job of arguing for human rights.
“It was clear for a long time that the kind of repressive regime that Mubarak controls, sooner or later there is going to be great difficulties,” said McCain.
House Speaker John Boehner praised the administration’s handling of the situation and said the US must continue to support Egypt’s move to democracy.
“What we don’t want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East,” he said.
The State Department is recommending that Americans leave Egypt as soon as possible and said it is prepared to evacuate thousands of US citizens on chartered planes beginning Monday. Due to internet interruptions, however, officials said they must rely largely on friends and families in the US to relay that information to the stranded Americans.
Assistant Secretary of State Janice Jacobs told reporters Sunday that it will take several flights over the coming days to accommodate all American citizens who want to leave the country. On Sunday, Canada announced it would charter flights as early as Monday that will fly Canadians who wish to leave to London, Paris or Frankfurt.
Officials are considering three possible destinations, Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; and Nicosia, Cyprus. Jacobs, who’s in charge of consular affairs, said the US may also send planes to other cities in Egypt, such as Luxor, if there are a number of Americans stranded there. Americans taking the charter will be billed for the flight and must make their own travel arrangements home from Europe.
Anyone needing information on the flights should check the State Department and US embassy websites or send an e-mail to egyptemergencyusc(at)state.gov. They can also call 1-888-407-4747 toll-free from within the U.S. and Canada. From outside the US and Canada people can call 1-202-501-4444.
US military leaders reached out to their counterparts in Egypt and the Middle East. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to Egypt and Israel’s ministers of defense. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Egyptian Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, expressing his appreciation for the continued professionalism of Egypt’s military during the crisis, said Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby.
Mubarak appointed a vice president on Saturday for the first time in more than 30 years — the US long has pressed for that and Clinton called it the “bare beginning of what needs to happen” — and has pledged to make reforms.
“We want to see free and fair elections and we expect that this will be one of the outcomes of what is going on,” Clinton said, adding that the US is committed to working with the Egyptians who are interested in true democracy.
Clinton appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’ “Face the Nation,” CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week.” McConnell was on NBC, Boehner on Fox and McCain on CNN. –Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, Ben Feller and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.