POSTED: 7:40 a.m. HST, Feb 1, 2011
WASHINGTON — The State Department on Tuesday ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt amid growing anti-government protests and uncertainty over the security situation.
The move came as the Obama administration grasps for a response to the revolt against its strongest Arab ally and struggles with the implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East and beyond. In Cairo on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey met with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei to make clear Washington's desire for a peaceful transition, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has been especially busy in the past several days with an active outreach to political and civil society," Crowley said in a message posted to Twitter. "As part of our public outreach to convey support for orderly transition in Egypt, Ambassador Scobey spoke today with Mohamed ElBaradei." As it draws down staff at the embassy, the department said the administration had asked a respected former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, to visit members of embattled President Hosni Mubarak's government. "As someone with deep experience in the region, he is meeting with Egyptian officials and providing his assessment," it said.
In a separate statement, the department said it had ordered non-essential personnel to leave "in light of recent events." The move is an indication of Washington's deepening concern about developments in Egypt. The order replaces an initial decision last week to allow non-essential workers who wanted to leave the country to do so at government expense.
The department said it would continue to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Egypt aboard government-chartered planes.
On Monday, the U.S. evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on such flights and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Monday's flights ferried Americans from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey. On Tuesday, the department expects to add Frankfurt, Germany as a destination.
It also hopes to arrange evacuation flights from the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor.
The Cairo airport is open and operating but the department warned that flights may be disrupted and that people should be prepared for lengthy waits.
The administration has thus far confined its public comments to calls for restraint, reforms and a transition to a real democracy.
But as the protests against Mubarak's three-decade iron rule escalated on Tuesday, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mubarak should "step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure."
"It is not enough for President Mubarak to pledge 'fair' elections," Kerry wrote in the New York Times. "The most important step that he can take is to address his nation and declare that neither he nor the son he has been positioning as his successor will run in the presidential election this year. Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation."
Meanwhile, Egypt's army leadership is reassuring the U.S. that the powerful military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but is instead, allowing the protesters to "wear themselves out," according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers. The Egyptians use a colloquial saying to describe their strategy -- that a boiling pot with a lid that's too tight will blow up the kitchen, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
That was always the argument that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who Mubarak tapped as his vice president on Friday, made regarding the handling of the Gaza border crossing point, every time visiting U.S. officials asked their counterparts to stop the smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip -- that the best way to head off Gaza unrest is to allow a relief valve that permitted them to bring in supplies.
The officers expressed concern with some of the White House statements that side with the protesters, saying that stoking revolt to remove Mubarak could create a vacuum that the banned, but powerful Muslim Brotherhood could fill, the official said. While the Brotherhood claims to have closed its paramilitary wing long ago, it has fought politically to gain power, and more threatening to the Mubarak regime, has built a nation-wide charity and social network that much of Egypt's poverty stricken population depends on for its survival.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Donna Cassatta contributed to this report.