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Washington puts faith in military to ensure peaceful transition

The Age

Saturday February 12, 2011

SIMON MANN

AMERICA'S long-established and close ties with Egypt's military appear critical to Washington's chances of retaining some influence in the Arab nation's transition to democracy.After Thursday's speech by President Hosni Mubarak (right), the army looked increasingly to be the linchpin in efforts to satisfy the demands of pro-democracy demonstrators.But publicly the Obama administration stiffened its rhetoric after seemingly being caught wrong-footed by expectations that Mr Mubarak was poised to relinquish power after nearly 30 years.In a brief statement, President Barack Obama called for greater clarity from Mr Mubarak and his Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, on the mechanics of change."The Egyptian people have been told there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," the statement read.Throughout the crisis, the US has balanced its security interests and desire for stability in the wider Middle East with its support for the nascent democratic movement.It has also tempered its criticism of the regime with public encouragement for an orderly transition that recognised Egyptians' desire for greater representation, adding a sense of urgency as frustrations have built over the regime's apparent reticence.Initially thrown by the speed at which the political ground in Egypt was shifting, the administration has drawn broad bipartisan support in the US for its handling of the crisis, throughout which key officials have kept in constant contact with Egypt's military leaders. Analysts maintained that those avenues of communication remained critical to resolving the stalemate.Washington, which underwrites Egypt's military with an annual $US1 billion-plus aid cheque, has praised its generals' discipline and restraint.Former US deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday America needed to continue to make clear that it celebrated what the protesters had achieved, while promising continued support."The transitions [in history] that have been successful are the ones where the military have kept their hands clean and didn't start killing its own citizens," he told CNN.Washington's hope is that the military will be an obstacle to any call within the regime for a crackdown against protesters, and it will help orchestrate change without resorting to violence of its own.Egypt's ambassador to the US, Sameh Shoukry, insisted that Mr Mubarak's second televised address to Egyptians confirmed Mr Suleiman was effectively the nation's de facto president, paving the way for tangible change.Mr Obama appeared far from satisfied by such reassurances, calling on the regime to move swiftly "to spell out in clear . . . language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy".But Washington's best hope of helping achieve a desired outcome still seems to lie in behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

© 2011 The Age

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