Washington (CNN) -- As they talked publicly in generalities about a smooth transition to a new government in Egypt, U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes on ways to "move that process forward," a national security spokesman said.
Top members of the Obama administration stated Thursday their desire for embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office and for inclusive negotiations to begin immediately with his political opponents.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor added that U.S. officials have also discussed with Egyptian officials "a variety of different ways" in which that new government could take shape.
But Vietor stressed "all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people."
A senior Obama administration official knocked down a New York Times report that the Egyptians and Americans were near consensus on a specific proposal.
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Camera rolls as Cooper, crew attacked "It's simply wrong to report that there's a single U.S. plan that's being negotiated with the Egyptians," the official said.
U.S. officials have made clear in recent days their desire to jumpstart talks between opposition and ruling forces in order to lay the groundwork as soon as possible for a governmental transition.
That includes pressuring, besides Mubarak's government, opposition groups to engage immediately in talks.
Mubarak has announced he will not seek re-election in September. Protesters, however, continue to demand that he step down immediately, with a caretaker unity government running the country until the fall elections.
While some, like former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, believe concessions made by Mubarak presented an opportunity to build upon, members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood have insisted no talks should take place until the president leaves office.
"It's time for both of them to roll up their sleeves," a senior State Department official said. "The government has to take some steps, but the opposition has to be willing to participate in negotiations as well."
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman made "important statements" about a political dialogue, the senior official said. Still, he added that the Egyptian government should allow the opposition to bring its own ideas, rather than dictate the pace and scope of a transformation to democracy.
The urgent call for talks comes as the Egyptian government pushed back on what it described as "vague" statements from the Obama administration about the pace of transition.
An Egyptian government official told CNN the White House has shown support for its "roadmap" for a transition up to when Mubarak's term ends in September, but said President Obama's calls for an "orderly transition" are at odds with his call for an immediate one.
The official said Mubarak is seen as a "receding figure" in Egyptian politics, but warned that deposing him immediately would lead to a murky political process that would make free and fair elections difficult. According to the Egyptian constitution, the presidency would be transferred to the speaker of the parliament if Mubarak leaves power without enacting certain legislative and constitutional reforms.
"Institutionally, there is support in Egypt for this roadmap among the military, vice president and prime minister," said the Egyptian official.
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U.S. officials said they believe what transpires Friday -- when another massive anti-government protest is expected -- will be an important barometer on whether serious negotiations can take place. Demonstrators may be less willing to talk if attacked.
"It's hard to imagine if there is a day of very bad violence, it will lead to the type of dialogue that needs to take place," the senior State Department official said.
These backroom discussions involving the U.S. and Egyptian political players come as the White House and legislators stepped up their public pressure on Mubarak's regime.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden talked with Suleiman and pressed him that "credible, inclusive negotiations (should) begin immediately" with opposition political groups, a statement from Biden's office said.
That sentiment was reiterated by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who told reporters "it is important that we all begin to see meaningful steps, and that negotiations take place between the (current) government and a broadly based group of members of the opposition as we work through the transition toward free and fair elections."
U.S. lawmakers have also chimed in, with foreign policy veterans Sens. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and John McCain, R-Arizona, among those calling for Mubarak to step aside for the sake of his country and people.
Thursday night, the U.S. Senate gave unanimous approval to a resolution calling for Mubarak to "immediately begin an orderly and peaceful transition to a democratic political system, including the transfer of power to an inclusive interim caretaker government, in coordination with leaders from Egypt's opposition, civil society, and military, to enact the necessary reforms to hold free, fair, and internationally credible elections this year."
The Obama administration also sharply condemned the violence that erupted Wednesday in Cairo, when pro-Mubarak supporters attacked anti-government protesters. At least eight people were killed and 836 injured, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday "elements close to the government or ruling party" carried out the violence.
"I don't think we have a sense of how far up the chain it went," he noted.
The United States continues to walk a fine diplomatic line in the crisis, encouraging Mubarak to transition from power while stopping short of publicly asking him to step down.
Officials say the restraint is needed because the White House is mindful that allies in the Middle East are concerned about American loyalty. Government contacts have expressed reservations about how vocal the Obama administration has been in pressing Mubarak, a close American ally of three decades.
Other regional allies are concerned about how quickly the United States might turn on them if protests start in their countries, the State Department officials said.
The White House, meanwhile, has made a deliberate decision to let Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, take the lead role in communicating with the Egyptian military about its role in the current unrest, according to two senior U.S. officials.
Mullen has not told Egyptian military leaders to pressure Mubarak to step down, the officials insisted to CNN. "That's not his role," one official said.
Mullen is, however, trying to push the Egyptian military to maintain security, not move against peaceful protesters, and keep the violence from escalating.
The U.S. government believes Mubarak will not issue a direct order to the Egyptian army to do anything because he is uncertain his orders would be followed, one official with very direct knowledge of evolving U.S. policy in the crisis told CNN.
A refusal on the part of the army to obey Mubarak would spell the end of the Egyptian leader's rule, the official noted. At that point, Mubarak would have to leave the country.
The U.S. belief right now, the official said, is that Suleiman is letting the army feel it is "representing the flag of the nation" in trying to help without making a massive move against the government.
While Mullen is communicating with his Egyptian counterparts, the CIA has set up its own task force to monitor the crisis.
"The Central Intelligence Agency always surges personnel and resources as needed to meet any crisis head-on. This situation is no different, and we've established a Middle East Task Force," CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said.
"Our 24/7 operations are focused on ensuring we provide the best possible insights and freshest intelligence to policymakers," she said.
The chaotic situation has raised concerns that terrorist entities could try to exploit the situation.
"People are watching for signs that terrorists or militant groups might try to take advantage of the situation in Cairo and launch attacks," a U.S. official noted. "We expect groups like al Qaeda to take advantage of instability anywhere as a means to promote their cause publicly."
Overall, the Obama administration is handling the Egyptian crisis relatively well so far, according to Nicholas Burns, a former Clinton State Department official.
"We've got to stand up, as the president is doing, for reform and democracy," Burns told CNN. The U.S. government needs to "use our influence behind the scenes, and we've got a lot of influence there with President Mubarak to move him towards a fast transition."
Burns noted the importance of Egypt in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, shipments through the Suez Canal, and the containment of Iran, among other things.
"We've got to preserve those very real American interests," he said. "This is about as difficult a challenge diplomatically as I think we have seen in many years."
Michael Rubin, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that while it's "tempting to try to score political points" in the current crisis, he's not sure Obama has responded any differently than a Republican president would have in a similar situation.
In terms of backing Mubarak, all of Obama's predecessors "kicked the can down the road until the road ran out," he said.
The real difficulty, Rubin said, will come in the months ahead as U.S. policymakers try to prevent Egypt from following the path Iran took after 1979, when the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi led to the rise of the fundamentalist regime still in power today.
The U.S. needs to make clear the Egyptian elections happen "come hell or high water," Rubin said, but at the same pushing to ensure armed extremist militias aren't allowed to claim the mantle of democratic legitimacy.
CAIRO (IPS/GIN) - Demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt continued in several Egyptian cities with police cracking down violently, a development that many analysts here say reflects the nervousness of the regime.
At least four people have died so far, 600 have been arrested and many more injured. Protests are flaring up in Cairo, Suez, Mahal El- Kubra and Alexandria.
“Young people are standing in the way of heavily armed armoured vehicles and stopping them. People are genuinely frustrated,” Khaled Al-Balashy, editor-in-chief of Al-Badil newspaper told IPS.
“That was the first time I see people literally sacrificing their lives in face of police brutality,” Al-Balashy said. “They think nothing worse could happen to them. This is unprecedented. And the changes will be equally unprecedented. It is a matter of time.”
Diaa Rashwan, an analyst with the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies noted that the protests are now calling for regime change, not for the usual government benefits or reduction in food prices.
“Protesters want the regime out. That in itself has confused the government,” Rashwan said. “They do not know how to respond so far. The only answer has been extra security - I think they are scared.”
The government has stepped up its security response across the country, with armoured vehicles visibly deployed around important buildings in Cairo - including the television and radio building overlooking the River Nile and several ministerial offices.
Hundreds of members of the Egyptian Press Syndicate demonstrated outside their union, where there was a heavy police presence, while hundreds of lawyers were trying to break a blockade by the police of the Bar Association building nearby.
Several women journalists were beaten by the police and were seen crying in pain. Many were seen yelling at officers who had used clubs against women reporters.
“These protests may not bring immediate or quick results,” said Qutb Al- Arabi, an activist with the Egyptian Press Syndicate. “But it is a message to the government that we are truly fed up.”
Mr. Al-Arabi said he was demonstrating with other journalists initially for greater press freedoms, but as the police cracked down with violence, the demands have now shifted to request the departure of 82-year old President Hosni Mubarak who has ruled Egypt since 1981.
Pres. Mubarak and his government have been losing popularity due in part to implementation of economic policies backed by Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development that have led to high prices, rampant unemployment and corruption.
The government has cut or removed subsidies for many staple goods in a country where millions survive on less than two dollars a day.
Just before the protests broke out Jan. 25, the government was preparing to cut energy subsidies, a move that would have pushed prices up even further.
The health ministry was also planning to cut its public health care coverage - limiting the hours at public hospitals were patients could be seen for reduced fees.
Politically, more activists are being pushed to the sidelines— including Islamic opposition, secular and independent political leaders.
Several political activists were particularly shocked in November over what they saw as the rigged parliamentary elections, which the ruling National Democratic Party won with an overwhelming majority - leaving very little room for opposition.
“The government's performance is very weak on many levels, be that socially, politically or economically,” said Gouda Abdel-Khalek, head of the economic affairs committee at the left-leaning opposition Al-Taggammu Party.
But some analysts say that the Egyptian regime is flexible enough to note the demands of the protestors.
“We are talking about a state that is a professional survivor,” Mohamed Abdel-Salam, editor-in-chief of the political periodical Al-Seysa Al-Dawlia told IPS. “They survived many other storms before.”
Abdel-Salam said the size of the protests were clearly larger than what Egypt was used to, but “it is still smaller than protests in Tunisia, Lebanon or Yemen.”
“The political elite are reading the events well and we expect to see some positive response soon because they will strengthen the hand of the reformists inside the ruling establishment. The changes will likely be political rather than economic,” said Abdel-Salam, whose publication is part of the state-run Al-Ahram Institution.
The government however has not indicated it is responding either politically or economically.
The Interior Ministry has been the dominant government voice so far. In a statement Tuesday, the ministry blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the protests—a declaration that positions the government to ignore demands of protesters since the Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed.
Opposition parties say the protests were spontaneous and not organized by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It was a popular unrest. It wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Abdel- Khalek of Al-Taggammu party. “I hope that the regime will get the real message and won't believe its own untruths”.
Abdel-Khalek, who also teaches economics at Cairo University, said that the regime will fight hard for its survival because it is “a matter of life and death”.
“They are afraid that once they are toppled, there will be investigations into their corruption and their mismanagement of the country,” he told IPS.
The liberal Wafd Party called for a “reconciliation government' that would include members from outside Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, and also on Mubarak to dissolve the current “rigged” parliament.
But all analysts agree on one thing; the emergence of a new generation of young Egyptians who are more combative and who are not afraid of the police—who are capable of bringing about more change than previously thought.
A former White House official has criticized the US support of the Egyptian government, saying Cairo's strengthened military power may worsen the situation in the country.
“Our [the US] relationship [with Egypt] has been largely based on support for the [Egyptian] government to be able to maintain its borders and protect itself,” Edward Peck told Press TV in an interview.
“The relationship is supposed to transcend what could be a minor bump on the road to the sort of things that the American government would like to see,” said Peck, who formerly served as the State Department's Director of the Office of Egyptian Affairs.
Referring to Israel's call on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to use force if necessary, he said, “It is fairly typical of the Israeli government to urge the use of force, which of course, is what Israel does whenever it faces anyone who is unhappy with the situation in occupied territories for example.”
Commenting on the US foreign policy on the issue, Peck said that “we would be better off not saying much, certainly much less than we are saying now.”