Leaked Cables Reveal Tricky, Shifting Egypt Ties

President Obama speaks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office in Washington, on Sept. 1, 2010. Getty Images

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables reveal months of difficult relationship management by the Obama administration to keep Egypt friendly as a key ally in the Arab world, while pressing the nation's long-time leader to temper his iron grip on power.

The balance in this delicate relationship, reports The New York Times, may be shifting abruptly amid widespread upheaval on the streets of Egypt aimed, very pointedly, at removing that long-time leader, President Hosni Mubarak.

The cables, some of the latest handed to the Times by the Wikileaks organization, give insight into a shift in the U.S. government's approach to Mubarak's regime since President Obama assumed power - vowing to better relations with a largely unsympathetic Muslim world.

Cables sent to Washington ahead of Egypt visits by senior American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus, warn of topics deemed too sensitive for discussion with counterparts from Cairo.

The Times article begins with an account of Clinton being warned by the embassy against even the slightest mention during a March 2009 visit - even in praise of Egypt - of Cairo's decision to free an opposition leader from prison on compassionate grounds. That same year, Gen. Petraeus was advised before his trip to Egypt that the Obama administration had abandoned, "the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years."

Obama's deliberate shift from the "name and shame" practices of the Bush administration seemed to pay off in the form of Egypt's help on key issues. The Times notes that Mubarak directly aided Mr. Obama by mediating between the Palestinians and Israelis, firmly backed Washington in its standoff with the Iranian government, and publically backed the new government in Iraq in spite of personal opposition to the U.S.-led war in that country.

Behind closed doors, however, the Times says U.S. diplomats maintained steady pressure on Mubarak to free political prisoners and allow pro-democracy groups to operate freely inside the country. The pressure was largely fruitless in coaxing any real change out of Mubarak, who has run Egypt in an almost autocratic manner for three decades, locking up (or worse) those who might challenge his power.

But now, for the first time in those 30-plus years of his rule, Mubarak is being forced to deal with pressure not just from Western diplomats in private conversations (private until WikiLeaks came along, anyway), but from an angry public which has had enough of Mubarak's ways.

Egypt Turmoil Creates U.S. Diplomatic Problem

Friday is expected to see the culmination of a week of protests, with thousands expected to pour out of mosques across the nation and flood the streets after Friday prayers.

The government has braced itself, with counterterrorism units out on patrol and many Internet services being cut across the country. CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that the protests spread like wildfire this week, fueled by organizers' keen use of social networking sites to get out the masses.

Egypt Protests Fueled by Social Networking

With a public attempting to rise up against Mubarak's rule, Mr. Obama himself has moved some of the private pressure on Cairo into the light, calling on the Egyptian leader Thursday to ensure his government is "moving forward on reform."

Obama on Egypt: "Violence Is Not the Answer"

"It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express their grievances," Obama said in an interview broadcast live on YouTube.

Still noting Mubarak's help "on a lot of critical issues," Obama added: "I've always said to him that making sure that they're moving forward on reform, political reform and economic reform, is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt."

That's about as far as Mr. Obama can go to bring the backroom pressure detailed in the WikiLeaks cables into the daylight without risking accusations from Cairo that the U.S. is fomenting violent unrest in Egypt.

These are not the first diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks to discuss America's awkward relationship with Mubarak. Cables published in December 2010 revealed disagreements over how Cairo was spending millions in U.S. military aid money, with Washington pressing for a greater focus on counterterrorism and cross-border smuggling.
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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