WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to stop short, at least for now, of calling for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was driven by the administration’s concern that it could lose all leverage over the Egyptian president, and because it feared creating a power vacuum inside the country, according to administration officials involved in the debate.
In recounting Saturday’s deliberations, they said Mr. Obama was acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader.
But after the president and his advisers met early Saturday afternoon in the Situation Room, Mr. Obama, through a description of the session issued by the National Security Council, once again urged Mr. Mubarak to refrain from violence against the protesters and to support “concrete steps” that advanced political reform within Egypt. He did not define what those steps should be or whether the White House believed they could take place while Mr. Mubarak was in office.
According to senior administration officials at the meeting, Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. “He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events,” said a senior administration official, who like others, would not speak for attribution because of the delicacy of the discussions.
The administration’s restraint is also driven by the fact that, for the United States, dealing with an Egypt without Mr. Mubarak would be difficult at best, and downright scary at worst. For 30 years, his government has been a pillar of American foreign policy in a volatile region, not least because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. American officials fear that a new government — particularly one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups — may not honor the treaty signed in 1979 by Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat.
Mr. Sadat was assassinated two years later, paving the way for Mr. Mubarak. “Clearly Mubarak’s time has run out,” said one of Mr. Obama’s advisers. “But whether that means he allows a real political process to develop, with many voices, or whether he steps out of the way — that’s something the Egyptians need to decide. We don’t get a vote.”
This is hardly the first time that Washington has faced the crisis of how to deal with an uprising against a hard-line, dictatorial or corrupt ally. Some officials have compared what is unfolding in Egypt with the uprisings more that three decades ago that led to the ouster of Iran’s shah, and the protests in the Philippines that brought down Ferdinand Marcos.
In Iran, Washington gambled on the emergence of a government that it could work with, and lost — a process that one member of the Obama cabinet, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, was deeply involved in as a young aide in the Carter administration. In the Philippines, the result was a messy democracy.
In the past, Mr. Mubarak has thrown the example of Iran in the face of American officials — perhaps as a warning not to press him too hard. In 2009, just before Mr. Mubarak came to Washington, the American ambassador to Cairo at the time, Margaret Scobey, noted in a cable to the State Department, “We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world.”
“Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued,” said the cable, one of a trove collected by WikiLeaks. “In addition to Iraq, he also reminds us that he warned against Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas (Iran) to his doorstep.”
Obama administration officials would like to see a moderate and secular government emerge from the ashes of the Egyptian crisis. But in large part because Mr. Mubarak stifled so much political debate and marginalized any opposition, there is no middle ground in Egypt’s politics, no credible secular party that grew up in opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s government. Instead, there is the army, which has long supported Mr. Mubarak’s government, and on the other end of the spectrum, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
That means that if free elections were held today, Egyptians would have to choose between two extremes, neither of which is attractive to the United States.
“We should not press for early elections,” Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser to President Bush, said in an interview. “We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.”
Mr. Hadley said that given the choice, Egyptians might well settle on a hybrid government that might include the Muslim Brotherhood and a secular majority willing to continue to live by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Some officials have clearly begun to think about the many possibilities that could emerge should Mr. Mubarak depart from the presidential palace, including a government led by his newly installed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the country’s intelligence chief. American officials say that Mr. Suleiman has been described as more opposed to wide-ranging reforms than Mr. Mubarak. “Shifting the chairs for longtime supporters of Mubarak is not the kind of ‘concrete reform’ that the president is talking about,” one senior official said.
Another possibility, American officials say, would be a transitional government led by an outsider, perhaps Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who flew back to Cairo several days ago.
Mr. ElBaradei, who has not lived in Egypt for years, has little connection to the protesters. A frequent critic of United States policy, he could form a caretaker government in preparation for an election. As one American official said, “He’s shown an independence from us that will squelch any argument that he’s doing our bidding.”