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U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office in Washington on Jan. 28, 2011. (Pete Souza/The White House)
U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office in Washington on Jan. 28, 2011. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Obama's deafening silence on Mubarak speaks louder than words Add to ...

Hosni Mubarak may not heed the chanted demands from Egypt's masses that his time is up, but there's a deafening silence from U.S. President Barack Obama bearing the same blunt message.

Not a trace of support for Mr. Mubarak slipped from the lips of senior U.S. officials, even when asked bluntly if the United States backed its oldest and most reliable Arab ally.

"What side is the U.S on, Mubarak or the people in the streets?" U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked. It's the very question everyone in the Arab world wants answered, from Saudi princes in their palaces to Yemeni peasants.

"There's another choice," Ms. Clinton hedged. "It's the Egyptian people. We are on the side, as we have been for more than 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people, that respects the universal human rights of all."

Proving that policy is more than pious protestations is the credibility test facing Mr. Obama.

The installation of an Egyptian vice-president was a first, perhaps, crucial step. Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt's sprawling spy apparatus who has long and intimate ties to Washington, is evidently the preferred - perhaps hand-picked - transitional figure to usher Mr. Mubarak out.

According to Ms. Clinton, pushing Mr. Mubarak to pick a vice-president was a long-standing and major American policy goal.

"Our position is very clear. We have urged for 30 years that there be a vice-president and, finally, a vice-president was announced," she said. The reason, at least now, is clear.

"We also want to see an orderly transition ... so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void," Ms. Clinton added.

Washington's nightmare scenario is that the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's outlawed Islamic party - might be the void-filler. Just as Hamas won democratic legitimacy in Gaza and Hezbollah holds sway in Lebanon, the reality is that free and fair elections in the Arab world rarely match America's interests.

What was also clear was that after three decades of loyalty to successive American administrations - keeping a cold peace with Israel, brokering for the Palestinians, cracking down on al-Qaeda, torturing suspected terrorists and rallying to Washington's war cries - Mr. Mubarak is getting dumped.

Not since the Shah of Iran was dumped in 1979 has Washington abandoned an ally so quickly.

Mr. Suleiman, the intelligence chief, knows all the skeletons from three decades of the United States propping up Arab rulers it likes and needs, but he may not be the solution. Many Egyptians may regard him as a Mubarak clone. Or worse, an American stooge. It may be too late to placate an Arab street that for generations has watched Arab leaders toady to American demands in exchange for favoured treatment and billions in military aid.

"Words alone are not enough. There have to be actions," said Ms. Clinton, who made the rounds of every available talk show in an effort to reach the Arab world. She was talking about what Mr. Mubarak needs to do.

But Arabs who have lived in brutal, repressive regimes backed by successive U.S. presidents for half a century, may want actions, not just words, from the Obama administration.

Some, such as Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, were demanding at very least the honesty of an explicit call from Mr. Obama for Mr. Mubarak to quit.

Instead, the Obama administration seems to be betting its Arab-world policy on hopes that an apparatchik such as Mr. Suleiman can defuse immediate anger, find a face-saving out for Mr. Mubarak, and then serve as a safe pair of hands buying sufficient time for secular parties to organize, while delaying elections long enough that they have a chance to win.

The closest Ms. Clinton got to saying Mr. Mubarak's time was done was: "It's not a question of who retains power." Nonetheless, both she and the President have avoided every possible opportunity to voice any trace of support for Mr. Mubarak, who seized power 30 years ago and has ruled with an iron first ever since.

Mr. Obama picked Cairo for his outreach speech to Muslims in 2009. He made no specific call for democracy or economic and political reforms in Egypt, although it is by far the largest and most important Arab state.

Ms. Clinton was more effusive about the Egyptian dictator. "We consider Egypt to be a friend," she said at the time when asked about damning human-rights abuses detailed in her own State Department's report. "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family." Ms. Clinton said. But that was then.

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