Former Diplomats: U.S. Walks High Wire in Egypt

Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, on CBS' "Face the Nation," Feb. 6, 2011.
Former Israeli Ambassador Martin Indyk said on Sunday that the Obama administration must take on the role of "high wire artist" in Egypt, maintaining a position that supports both civilian freedoms and political stability in the region.

In an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," Indyk said Mr. Obama had so far made strong policy decisions regarding Egypt - even if his message had gotten a little "blurred."

"He's kind of like a high wire artist, in which he's got to walk a fine line between wanting [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to go, but not go in a way that creates chaos; wanting to signal to the street that he's with them in their demands for democracy and universal rights," said Indyk, the Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"So the message sometimes gets a little blurred because you've got this kind of echo chamber that the administration finds itself in."

Complete Coverage of Egypt's Political Turmoil

"It's a very complicated position," he continued, "but I would give President Obama credit here, that while he hasn't always got the messaging right, he's got the basic policy right - which is to get on the side of change and to try to use what influence we have to shape it in a peaceful and orderly way but to make clear that democracy needs to come to Egypt."

Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Israel and Jordan, noted that recent unconfirmed reports that the government is moving to lift restrictions on the press and to release political protesters was "very significant" - but that the government's next moves would be crucial in determining the future of Egypt.

"They're the first set of steps that we have seen that is now moving in the direction of change and putting it in a much more concrete form," Pickering said, "and doing it in a way that I think reflects what people have been pre-occupied about and indeed worried for a very long period of time: Will Egypt change? Can they deal with the civil rights and the democracy aspect of change? Can the army manage that kind of pivot and indeed can that be done in a way that doesn't bring violence and huge disruptions to many things that are very important for Egypt?

"We're going to have to wait and see and look very carefully," he added.

Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera's Washington and New York Bureau Chief, added that it was important that the Obama administration not misinterpret the forces driving Egypt's movement for political change.

"What the people are saying is, 'We don't actually care what these opposition parties are saying,'" Foukara told Schieffer. "'We did not officially delegate them. These are not a trade union. This is a revolution.'

"The other thing they've been saying is, 'We don't care what President Obama says, what the State Department says, what [U.S. Envoy to Egypt Frank] Wisner says. What we do care about is that we want Mubarak to step down. We have the will, the determination and the creativity to actually keep on demonstrating until we get our demands,'" Foukara continued. "Whether their demand ultimately that Mubarak not only steps down but also leaves the country will actually be met is a different issue."

Foukara noted that many people - in Egypt and the wider Arab world - were "feeling very jittery" about recent negotiations between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most prominent opposition party.

"I think Egyptians, certainly those demonstrating in the square yesterday, had a pretty bad day. It was first of all the reported attack on the gas pipeline to Jordan and Israel. And then there was that report that Vice President Omar Suleiman had been the subject of an assassination attempt," Foukara said. "The specter of the Muslim Brotherhood was raised on a wide scale in the U.S. media - and certainly that has impacted the dynamics."

Foukara added that the Obama administration should be focusing on the people and energy in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands of protesters have been gathered for the last two weeks, during which time protesters throughout Egypt took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mubarak.

"What we are seeing in the square, for example, today the cops holding a mass in the square," Foukara said. "There was a wonderful scene of a young Egyptian couple getting married right in the eye of the revolution. That's what the Obama administration needs to get plugged in because ultimately that's the future. That's the gate to the future of influence in the region."