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White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately, turning over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

An anti-government protestor holds a blooded Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
Getty Images
An anti-government protestor holds a blooded Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which, Mr. Suleiman, backed by Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the Defense Minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country’s electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.

Senior administration officials said that the proposal is one of several options under discussion with high-level Egyptian officials around Mr. Mubarak, though not him directly, in an effort to convince him to step down now.

The officials cautioned that the outcome depended on several factors, not least of all the mood of the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and the dynamics within the Egyptian government. Some officials said there was not yet any indication that either Mr. Suleiman or the military were willing to abandon Mr. Mubarak.

The Egyptian government will be tested again by massive new protests on Friday, which the demonstrators were calling the “day of departure” for Mr. Mubarak, when they plan to march on the presidential palace. The military’s pledge not to fire on the Egyptian people will be tested as well.

The discussions about finding a way out of the crisis in Cairo comes amid new questions about whether American spy agencies, after the collapse of the Tunisian government, adequately warned the White House and top lawmakers about the prospects of an uprising in Egypt.

During a Senate hearing on Thursday, both Democrats and Republicans pressed a senior Central Intelligence Agency official about when the C.I.A. and other agencies notified President Obama of the looming crisis, and whether intelligence officers even monitored social networking sites and internet forums to gauge popular sentiment in Egypt.

“At some point it had to have been obvious that there was going to be a huge demonstration,” said Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said that intelligence agencies never sent a notice to her committee about the growing uprising in Egypt, as is customary for significant global events.

Stephanie O’Sullivan, the C.I.A. official, responded that the agency has been tracking instability in Egypt for some time and had concluded that the government in Cairo was in an “untenable” situation. But, Ms. O’Sullivan, “We didn’t know that the triggering mechanism would be.”

Even as the Obama administration is coalescing around a Mubarak-must-go-now posture in private conversations with Egyptian officials, Mr. Mubarak himself remains determined to say until the elections in September, American and Egyptian officials said. His backers forcibly pushed back on Thursday against what they viewed as American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.

“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian constitution that bars the vice president from assuming power. Under the constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer. My political answer is they should mind their own business.”

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, Mr. Mubarak said that he was “fed up” with being president but that he could not step down for fear of sowing chaos in the country. Because of the fervor in Egypt, one Obama administration official said, Mr. Mubarak’s close aides expressed concern that they weren’t convinced that Mr. Mubarak’s resignation would satisfy the protesters.

“The worry on Mubarak’s part is that if he says yes to this, there will be more demands,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And since he’s not dealing with a legal entity, but a mob, how does he know there won’t be more demands tomorrow?”

A number of high-level American officials have reached out to the Egyptians in recent days. While administration officials would not give details of alternative scenarios, they made it clear that their preferred outcome would be Mr. Suleiman as the transitional figure.

High Level Phone Diplomacy

Vice President Biden spoke by phone to him on Thursday, the White House said in a statement, urging that “credible, inclusive negotiations begin immediately in order for Egypt to transition to a democratic government that addresses the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

Mr. Biden’s phone call came after a mission by Mr. Obama’s private emissary, Frank G. Wisner, was abruptly ended when Mr. Mubarak, angry at Mr. Obama’s toughly worded speech Tuesday night, declined to meet with the envoy a second time, official said.

Defense secretary Robert M. Gates has made three calls since the weekend to Egypt’s powerful defense minister, Field Marshal Tantawi, who served on the coalition side in the 1991 Gulf War. Pentagon officials declined on Thursday to describe the specifics of the calls, but indicated that Mr. Gates’ messages were focused on more than urging the Egyptian military to exercise restraint.

“Officials familiar with the dialogue between the administration and Cairo say that American officials have told Egyptian officials that if they support another ‘strong man’ to replace Mr. Mubarak — but without a specific plan and timetable for moving toward democratic elections — the U.S. Congress might react by freezing military assistance. On Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution calling on Mr. Mubarak to begin the transfer of power to an “inclusive, interim caretaker government.”

American officials have pointed to the Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that a transition government of Mr. Suleiman and the military, with pledges to move toward democratic elections, was in his mind “the most probable case.” But he said the administration had to proceed with extreme caution.

“Everybody working this issue knows that this is a military extremely sensitive to outside pressure,” he said, adding that Even as the administration ratcheted up the pressure on Egypt, it has reaffirmed its support for other Arab allies facing popular unrest. The White House released a statement saying that President Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on Wednesday to welcome Mr. Saleh’s recent “reform measures” –the Yemeni President promised not to run again in 2013.

And on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called King Abdullah of Jordan to say the United States looked forward to working with his new Cabinet—recently announced--and to underline the importance of the relationship between Jordan and the United States.

Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, declined to say whether Mrs. Clinton had enlisted him in an effort to ease out Mr. Mubarak. But he praised the king for responding to the unrest in Jordan. “He’s doing his best to respond to this growing aspiration,” Mr. Crowley said. “And we appreciate the leadership he’s shown.”

- Elisabeth Bumiller, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker contributed reporting

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