President Obama Dispatches Former Ambassador to Egypt to Cairo to Discuss “Transition”

Jan 31, 2011 5:49pm

The White House on Sunday dispatched a former ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, to fly to Cairo to urge the Egyptian government to, at the very least, embrace political reforms.

“As someone with deep experience in the region,” a White House official says, Wisner “is meeting with Egyptian officials and providing his assessment.”

Senior officials would not discuss whether Wisner was charged with showing Mubarak the door. Wisner, the ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991, is currently in Cairo.

A major readjustment to administration rhetoric in response to the crisis in Egypt came on Sunday when the phrase of the day was "orderly transition.”

The president issued a statement saying he supports "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people." And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took to the Sunday shows to make that argument. “it needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy,” she said.

But transition to what?

Michelle Dunn of the Carnegie Endowment was one of several Egypt experts called to the White House today to meet with the president's national security staff

“I do think the Obama Administration is using the word ‘transition’ over the last day or two means that they're sending the signal that they think a change in leadership, a change in the presidency, is going to be necessary to resolve the situation peacefully,” Dunn told ABC News.

White House officials have said “transition” doesn’t necessarily mean a different president, just a clear movement towards a fundamentally different kind of government. Says a senior White House official: “It’s not the place of the U.S. government to say ‘this individual should not be president of Egypt anymore.’”

Officials acknowledge, however, a tonal shift. 

On Tuesday, when the protests began, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address and didn’t mentioned democratic movements in Sudan and Tunisia – but not Egypt.

On Thursday Vice President Biden defended President Mubarak

“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things,” said the vice president, who has been a major player in the administration’s response to the crisis. “I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

On Friday President Obama urged Mubarak to usher in reforms.

“When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity,” the president said. “I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words.”

It became clear that Mubarak’s idea of change, however, was just “shuffling the deck” in his Cabinet, as State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley put it, and White House officials felt compelled to make it clear that wasn’t enough.

Thus came the latest term of art: transition.

The administration continues to face charges that it has watched as events on the ground have sprinted past US policy, and that the US government is fence-sitting — but one key consideration may be fear of what's on the other side of the fence.

Is it an Islamist organization such as The Muslim Brotherhood whose election may lead to tremendous instability in the region? Is it something else?

One administration official tells ABC News: "we don’t know.”

-Jake Tapper


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