US seeks support for Egypt's transition
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Saturday for international support for an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt as she warned of forces that might try to derail it.
Visiting Munich, Germany, Clinton also advocated support for open and accountable governments across the Middle East -- shaken by mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen -- despite the short-term risks of chaos and instability.
And the chief US diplomat praised the restraint of Egyptian security forces in largely peaceful mass protests on Friday.
A transition in Egypt "will become immeasurably harder if there is not restraint by government and security forces, and we thankfully saw that yesterday with the very large but peaceful demonstration," she said.
Clinton, who was addressing the international Munich Security Conference, also worried about other threats to stability, referring to an attack by unknown saboteurs on an Egyptian gas pipeline supplying Jordan.
The attack forced authorities to switch off the gas supply from a twin pipeline to Israel, an official told AFP.
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Clinton said.
This, she said, is "why I think it is important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government actually headed by now-Vice President Omar Suleiman."
Her remarks raised Suleiman's profile even though she said he was acting under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's orders.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported on Saturday that Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders were exploring ways for Mubarak to make a graceful exit.
Rather than go immediately, they said, Mubarak's powers would be scaled back, enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, to negotiate reforms with the opposition.
However, the picture became confused when Frank Wisner, who last Monday was sent by President Barack Obama with a message for Mubarak, said the Egyptian president should stay in office during the transition.
"President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical," Wisner said.
"It's his opportunity to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country, this is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward."
US officials, however, quickly distanced themselves from Wisner's remarks, saying he was speaking as a private citizen.
On Friday, Obama said the proud "patriot" Mubarak should listen to his people and make the "right decision". He avoided an explicit request for the longtime US ally to step down immediately.
Mubarak, 82, whose three decades as leader of the Arab world's most populous nation had gone unchallenged until now, has said he is "fed up" with his job, but prefers to stay in power until September elections while calm is restored.
Clinton meanwhile appeared to ease the pressure on the Egyptian leadership when she said a number of "concrete steps" were needed before elections could take place in September.
"That takes some time," she said, her comments less insistent than those she and other officials in the Obama administration had made in the past week, when they called for the transition to start "immediately".
In a speech that recalled one she gave last month in Qatar calling for reform in Arab countries, Clinton said the "challenge is to help our (Middle East) partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future."
Clinton, whose speech in Doha came just a day before Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after mass popular protests, said the Middle East was being battered by a "perfect storm" of powerful trends.
She spoke of too many young people seeking too few jobs in countries with depleting water and energy resources -- and expressing their frustrations on social-networking sites.
"Across the region, there must be clear and real progress toward open, transparent, fair, and accountable systems."
Nonetheless, "there are risks with the transition to democracy," Clinton added.
"(The) transition can backslide into just another authoritarian regime," she said.
"Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism."
© 2011 AFP