“For three days straight, as the Cairo crisis gathered momentum, they had hardly left their desks. Now, huddled in the big office of their boss—one of the administration policy-makers trying to calibrate the U.S. response to the unfolding drama—the advisers watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s first statement. Two television sets were running, one showing CNN and the other a satellite feed from Al Jazeera. Someone had popped popcorn in a microwave. In the old days, their boss reflected, he would have ordered in pizza, but since 9/11 the ever-expanding security precautions had shut down deliveries of take-out…

“Had there been an office pool, the boss thought, the favored bet would have been that Mubarak was about to ‘do an LBJ’ and repeat what President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968 in the face of a wave of protests: announce he would not stand in the upcoming presidential election. Certainly, Mubarak’s departure would present the U.S. with a new set of daunting challenges, but at least it would quiet the Egyptian streets and buy some time for mediation.

“But as the Egyptian president spoke—a couple of the Arabic speakers in the room providing translation—the optimism died. Mubarak announced he was dismissing his government; he talked of reforms. But he also made clear his determination to stay on. There were groans, shaking of heads. This wasn’t going to be enough to halt the tumult in half of Egypt’s cities, and, more disconcertingly, Mubarak’s assertion that the demonstrations were ‘part of a bigger plot to shake the stability’ of Egypt sounded ominous. The Egyptian president had called out the Army on Friday; now his speech sounded as if he was preparing to use it. President Obama’s Middle East advisers believed that if Egyptian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, the country would likely explode. As Mubarak ended his address, someone in the room voiced the thought on everyone’s mind: ‘Well, what do we do now?'”

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“After President Obama spoke last night about the situation in Egypt, my Twitter feed and inbox filled up with angry denunciations, with lots of people complaining bitterly that he had endorsed Mubarak’s grim struggle to hold on to power, missed an historic opportunity, and risked sparking a wave of anti-Americanism. Once I actually read the transcript of his remarks, though, I felt much better. I think the instant analysis badly misread his comments and the thrust of the administration’s policy. His speech was actually pretty good, as is the rapidly evolving American policy. The administration, it seems to me, is trying hard to protect the protestors from an escalation of violent repression, giving Mubarak just enough rope to hang himself, while carefully preparing to ensure that a transition will go in the direction of a more democratic successor…

“The administration’s public statements and private actions have to be understood as not only offering moral and rhetorical support to the protestors, or as throwing bones to the Washington echo chamber, but as working pragmatically to deliver a positive ending to a still extremely tense and fluid situation.

“I completely understand why activists and those who desperately want the protestors to succeed would be frustrated — anything short of Obama gripping the podium and shouting ‘Down With Mubarak!’ probably would have disappointed them. But that wasn’t going to happen, and shouldn’t have. If Obama had abandoned a major ally of the United States such as Hosni Mubarak without even making a phone call, it would have been irresponsible and would have sent a very dangerous message to every other U.S. ally. That doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that Obama has to stick with Mubarak over the long term — or even the weekend — but he simply had to make a show of trying to give a long-term ally one last chance to change.”

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“According to senior administration officials at the meeting, Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events,’ said a senior administration official, who like others, would not speak for attribution because of the delicacy of the discussions…

“‘Clearly Mubarak’s time has run out,’ said one of Mr. Obama’s advisers. ‘But whether that means he allows a real political process to develop, with many voices, or whether he steps out of the way — that’s something the Egyptians need to decide. We don’t get a vote.’…

“Obama administration officials would like to see a moderate and secular government emerge from the ashes of the Egyptian crisis. But in large part because Mr. Mubarak stifled so much political debate and marginalized any opposition — there is no middle ground in Egypt’s politics, no credible secular party that grew up in opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s government. Instead, there is the army, which has long supported Mr. Mubarak’s government, and on the other end of the spectrum, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood…

“‘We should not press for early elections,’ Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser to President Bush, said in an interview. ‘We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.'”

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Via Mediaite.