by Jay Solomon and Bill Spindle
The Obama administration intensified diplomatic pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to initiate wide-ranging political overhauls, an indication the U.S. is trying to re-channel the spreading anger in the region.
Uprisings in the Middle East have placed the future of some of the U.S.'s closest strategic allies into question, and raised the specter that grass-roots anger at leaders perceived as corrupt and out-of-touch could be seized upon by Islamic radicals hoping to ride the anger to power.
To prevent that outcome, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials have decided not to seek wholesale political change in Cairo and other Arab capitals, but instead to prod their long-serving political allies into embracing reform movements that, so far, appear to be largely secular and grass-roots in nature.
A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria have been inspired directly by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, the ouster of a Western-allied government dealt a blow to U.S. efforts to blunt the influence of Iran and Syria in the region.
U.S. officials have noted that the protests in Egypt this week haven't been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian Islamist parties, which are historically hostile to U.S. interests in the region, particularly peace agreements with Israel.
"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," Mrs. Clinton said in scripted comments given at the State Department on Wednesday. "The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals."
In those remarks, Mrs. Clinton drew from a playbook the U.S. utilized during protests last week in Tunisia that eventually led to the overthrow of the long-serving strongman President Ben Ali.
This strategy has cast the U.S. as formally neutral in the political fighting, and focused on pressing governments to allow for the kinds of freedoms that give strength to the opposition, such as free speech and unhindered access to the Internet.
Mrs. Clinton pressed Cairo not to block Facebook, Twitter and other social-networking websites that activists have used to organize demonstrations.
"We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites," Mrs. Clinton said alongside the foreign minister of Jordan, a U.S. ally whose government also faced street protests this week.
Egyptian officials took Mrs. Clinton's comments in stride. A senior official from Mr. Mubarak's ruling NDP party said they were "balanced."
The official added that many of the protesters' demands were legitimate, but that there remained concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood could hijack the protest movement.
Mrs. Clinton's comments marked a continuing, and relatively drastic, evolution of the Obama administration's stance on democracy promotion in the Mideast in just a few weeks.
Last year, the administration was criticized by Egyptian opposition leaders for not more aggressively pressing Mr. Mubarak to ensure transparent legislative elections.
Mr. Mubarak's party dominated the polls and the 82-year-old has appeared positioned to either gain another term in office this year or to pass power to an anointed successor. Some Mideast analysts, though, say the protests could be placing this transition in jeopardy.
Then, in a speech this month in the Persian Gulf, Mrs. Clinton slammed Arab leaders for failing to embrace political change.
U.S. officials said Mrs. Clinton's comments were focused on Cairo, which rebuffed repeated U.S. calls for independent political monitors to be allowed to witness the elections.
Still, the Obama administration faces significant risks in taking a more activist line in Egypt and other Arab states.
Mr. Mubarak has been a central player in U.S. efforts to broker peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and other Arab governments. Mrs. Clinton has indicated there would be risks to any change in Cairo's leadership, noting that, "for both our nations, permanent peace in the Middle East remains our No. 1 priority."
Cairo also has been a central player in U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. U.S. officials still remain wary that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations could piggy-back on the political turmoil in Egypt and use it to eventually wrest power in Cairo.
These officials note potential parallels to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, in which secular and leftist parties were gradually purged from political influence by the late Ayatollah Khomenei.
Any major shift in Cairo, similar to Tehran, would have profound impact through the Middle East, as Egypt is the Arab world's most populous nation.
Recent political turmoil in Lebanon also illustrates how democratic systems in the region can challenge U.S. interests.
In Beirut last week, the militant Lebanese militia and political party, Hezbollah, constitutionally toppled the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri and paved the way for the election Tuesday of the party's chosen new prime minister.
Washington has appeared powerless to effect change in Beirut because the political transition was executed through the Lebanese parliament.Original URL: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703293204576105901691696610.html
Jay Solomon and Bill Spindle
—Margaret Coker contributed to this article.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.