“Now means now," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked about the Obama Administration’s position that the transition to democracy in Egypt must begin immediately.

But over the weekend, “now” turned into some unspecified date in the future, as the Obama Administration backed away from its stance that Hosni Mubarak should resign and Egyptian pro-democracy activists should formally be brought into a transition government.

Reported the New York Times:

The United States and leading European nations on Saturday threw their weight behind Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, backing his attempt to defuse a popular uprising without immediately removing President Hosni Mubarak from power.

American officials said Mr. Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups. “That takes some time,” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said, speaking at a Munich security conference. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”

But the formal endorsement came as Mr. Suleiman appeared to reject the protesters’ main demands, including the immediate resignation of Mr. Mubarak and the dismantling of a political system built around one-party rule, according to leaders of a small, officially authorized opposition party who spoke with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday.

Nor has Mr. Suleiman, a former general, former intelligence chief and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime confidant, yet reached out to the leaders designated by the protesters to negotiate with the government, opposition groups said.

Instead of loosening its grip, the existing government appeared to be consolidating its power: The prime minister said police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.

Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.

Is the Obama Administration turning its back on the brave pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square, siding instead with the repressive Egyptian military establishment? From what we can discern of the current political situation, it seems that way. Despite his idealistic rhetoric last week, when Obama told the Egyptian people, “We hear your voices,” his administration has recently been empowering the very people the pro-democracy protestors want to replace.

On Sunday, Suleiman—Mubarak’s controversial former spy chief and a longtime military strongman—met with the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of pro-democracy groups, but failed to agree to any of the their main demands. Reported the Times:

While both sides acknowledged the meeting as unprecedented, its significance quickly became another skirmish in the battle between the president and the protesters. Mr. Suleiman released a statement—widely reported on state television and instantly a focal point in Washington—declaring that the meeting had produced a “consensus” about a path to reform, including the promise to form a committee to recommend constitutional changes by early March. The other elements echoed pledges Mr. Mubarak had already made, including a limit on how many terms a president can serve.

Leaders of the protest movement, including both its youthful members and Brotherhood officials, denounced Mr. Suleiman’s portrayal of the meeting as a political ploy intended to suggest that some in their ranks were collaborating.

Though the movement has only a loose leadership, it has coalesced around a unified set of demands, centered on Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, but also including the dissolution of one-party rule and revamping the Constitution that protected it, and Mr. Suleiman gave no ground on any of those demands.

It’s hard to know if we’re witnessing the transition to democracy the Obama administration called for or a farce in which Suleiman and remnants of the Mubarak regime rig the democratic process and consolidate their power in advance of promised elections in September. “To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after thirty years in power is an oxymoron,” opposition leader Mohamad Elbaradei said last week.

Sometimes bold action and moral clarity can be more politically pragmatic than the cautious, old-guard diplomacy undertaken by the Obama administration in recent days. Wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post:

It’s worth remembering what has led to the rise of Islamic extremism and anti-American rage in the Middle East. Arabs see Washington as having supported brutal dictatorships that suppress their people. They believe that it ignored this suppression as long as the regimes toed the line on American foreign policy. If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo. Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious and more violent. That might be the real parallel to the forces that led to the Iranian revolution.

This is a critical moment in Egypt, and the exact time when the Obama Administration, after hedging its bets for two weeks, needs to make clear which side it’s on. 

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