Crisis in Tahrir Square

As crisis deepens in Egypt, U.S. ‘can’t dictate events’

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 9:30 PM

The Obama administration faced a rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt on Wednesday, with few good options to influence the course of events.

While administration officials continued to put their faith in the Egyptian military to reestablish calm, they said Wednesday that it would probably be counterproductive for the army to intervene directly in pitched battles that broke out after forces supporting President Hosni Mubarak attacked protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The army’s apparent efforts to keep the two groups apart was probably the best of a list of bad alternatives, according to several senior administration officials. They said they wanted to see the Egyptian military preserve its stature so it can serve as guarantor of an interim government.

Officials also voiced concern that what one called “this pillar of stability” could split into factions opposing and supporting the embattled Mubarak.

“The way the military conducts itself over the coming days is going to be critical in determining whether this situation can be brought under control,” said one of several officials who spoke of the tense situation on the condition of anonymity. “There is a concern that if the army starts getting into internal security, the situation could deteriorate further.”

A day after Mubarak rejected President Obama’s call to begin a transition to a representative government “now” rather than later, top U.S. national security officials placed a series of calls to Cairo to drive home that point. As they have since last weekend, when administration policy shifted away from hoping that Mubarak could make some reforms and ride out the storm, the officials pressed Obama’s message: The government must cede to the protesters’ demands for change and invite them to help establish a transition process, which would either lead to Mubarak’s resignation or sideline him.

With no indication that this is taking place, and protesters refusing to yield in their insistence that Mubarak leave office immediately, officials said the next 24 to 48 hours would be crucial in determining whether there is any hope of a peaceful resolution of the crisis. They said they expected opposition demonstrators to return to the streets in force on Friday, the Muslim holy day, if not before.

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