In early 2011, as the so-called Arab spring was beginning to unfold in Egypt, President Obama sent a veteran diplomat to Cairo with a message for Hosni Mubarak: Leave.
The diplomat, Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt who had established a relationship with Mubarak, passed along the message to the longtime Egyptian ruler.
Then, Wisner threw out the script, telling a conference in Munich shortly afterwards that Mubarak needed to stay in power.
Obama reportedly was enraged, and the White House immediately began discounting Wisner as a voice for the administration.
Now the 84-year-old Mubarak is at the end, in critical condition as rumors of his death abound – while the two main presidential candidates seeking to replace him each claim victory in Egypt’s first democratic elections.
Wisner, in an interview with ABC News, declined to talk about his mission last year to Cairo and the Obama administration’s seething reaction to his speech in Germany.
“Then was then; now is now,” he said. “That’s a long time ago, and many rivers have flowed under that bridge. You can dream on and come up with anything you want.”
He said that the United States’ best policy is not to “take favorites” in the race. One candidate is Mubarak’s old prime minister, and the other represents the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious group often feared by American lawmakers.
But Wisner said the ex-PM, Ahmed Shafiq, has the advantage precisely because of his ties to the old regime, which comes with political machinery and an established constituency. Shafiq redeclared his confidence today, opening a press conference in Cairo by saying that he won the race.
“Most people who are best organized win elections,” Wisner said. “Look at Romney. Santorum didn’t win.”
The group backing the other candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has made gains in parliamentary elections while spurring threats in the U.S. Congress that foreign aid would be cut off if the group were to take power. Wisner called those warnings “childish,” though he noted that the Brotherhood has “never run a country.”
“So what are they going to do when an ideologically based organization takes over and runs the country?” he asked. “I can understand an Egyptian would have a few questions he needs to answer.”
“Our task is to be disciplined, and adapt to whoever it is,” he said.