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Analysts say US must avoid meddling in Egypt

The backing of Mr Suleiman is among a range of diplomatic options under consideration by the US administration as the US sought to get ahead of the curve of events in Egypt.

WASHINGTON // Anti-government protesters in Egypt must be persuaded that serious political reforms will occur if, as the US hopes, Hosni Mubarak steps down from office and Omar Suleiman becomes interim president, analysts said yesterday. At the same time, Washington has to tread carefully to avoid being seen as meddling in the domestic affairs of Egypt, they added.

"What we have not seen on the streets of Cairo yet are people chanting against the US and carrying green [Islamist] flags," said Mark Perry, a Washington-based independent political and military analyst. "If we are seen to be engineering a transition, those two things will happen, and they'll be burning Uncle Sam in the streets."

The US media has reported that the Obama administration is working behind the scenes to persuade Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, to turn over power to Mr Suleiman immediately.

Mr Suleiman would then work with opposition groups to organise new elections and other reforms. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, wrote in yesterday's Guardian newspaper that such reforms had to ensure "deep democracy" took hold in Egypt.

The effort is among a range of diplomatic options under consideration by the US administration as the US sought to get ahead of the curve of events in Egypt, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed senior administration officials.

Barack Obama, the US president, on Tuesday sent the strongest signal yet that the US was preparing for an Egypt without Mr Mubarak by calling for an immediate transition of power. But US officials have stopped short of calling directly on Mr Mubarak to step down.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets again yesterday, in what was billed as a "Day of Departure". While no clear leadership has emerged from the protestors thronging Egypt's streets and squares, Mr Mubarak's pledge not to run for re-election has done little to placate popular anger.

The appointment last week of Mr Suleiman as vice-president was also greeted with derision on the street. Mr Suleiman is seen as a regime insider, and though he has support within the Egyptian military - a crucial variable in any peaceful transition of power - he is viewed with suspicion by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organised political opposition group, for his role in the crackdown on Islamists in the past.

Mr Suleiman's speech to the nation on Thursday was also widely criticised for not addressing the concerns of the demonstrators.

"The administration is thinking that it needs a guy who is solid and can provide a credible transition. The key is 'credible'. Can Mr Suleiman provide that? I don't think so," said Mr Perry, who has met Mr Suleiman.

Nevertheless, the US is clearly exploring new diplomatic avenues after its effort to dispatch a retired diplomat, Frank Wisner, seen as close to Mr Mubarak, apparently failed to yield the desired result.

Mr Wisner returned to Washington on Thursday to brief administration officials. His trip to Cairo coincided with the appearance of Mr Mubarak on Egyptian television to announce that he would not run for re-election, but would stay in power until new elections.

Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said it made sense for the US to be seeking common ground between the Egyptian regime and the opposition.

"I think reasonable people on both sides in Egypt as well as in America can agree that we need some kind of interim process that will eventuate in elections some time this year," Mr Muravchik said. "The critical question is whether we can have really fair elections."

Mr Muravchik said the main obstacle facing American diplomacy was whether any arrangement that sees Mr Suleiman take on an interim leadership position and secure a dignified exit for Mr Mubarak would ensure a credible transition period of real reform that would not be rejected by popular anger.

"If you are at this moment fighting for democracy in Egypt, you don't want to have Suleiman in charge and entrust him to have free elections. He is seen as part of a regime that has done nothing but fix elections in the past."

okarmi@thenational.ae