Hillary hints at unease over early Mubarak departure

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pledges to step down after September polls.

Washington: The timetable of President Hosni Mubarak`s departure lies with the Egyptian people but his early departure could raise electoral complications, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday.

Under pressure from mass protests, Mubarak has pledged to step down after September polls but many protesters demand his immediate departure and US news reports have suggested Washington was also pressuring him to quit now.

However, Hillary, speaking to reporters on the way back from international talks on Egypt in Germany, stressed that Mubarak`s fate was not up to the United States.

"That has to be up to the Egyptian people," the chief US diplomat said when asked if reality dictated Mubarak play some role in the political transition toward free and fair elections in Egypt.

"As I understand the constitution, if the president were to resign, he would be succeeded by the speaker of the house, and Presidential Elections would have to be held in 60 days," she said.

"Now the Egyptians are going to have to grapple with the reality of what they must do," she said.

Hillary said, for example, that she had heard a leader from the opposition Muslim Brotherhood as well as leading dissident Mohammed ElBaradei say "it`s going to take time" to organise elections.

"That`s not us saying it. It`s them saying it," she said.

Hillary said retired diplomat Frank Wisner, whom President Barack Obama sent to Mubarak with a message last week, did "not speak for the administration" when he said the Egyptian leader should stay in office during the transition.

She, like other members of the administration, has distanced themselves from Wisner`s remarks but have not actually said he was wrong.

"President Mubarak`s continued leadership is critical," Wisner told the Munich Security Conference, the same one Hillary attended.

"It`s his opportunity to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country, this is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward," Wisner said.

Hillary also praised Mubarak for the steps he had taken toward his own political exit and to ensure that his son Gamal -- whom protesters fear is being groomed as the next president -- would not succeed him.

"They have to be viewed as an important set of steps that he has taken to keep the movement" toward a transition going, she said.

The chief US diplomat declined to comment on talks that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak`s first vice president in three decades of rule, held Sunday with the Muslim Brotherhood.

She said it was up to Egyptians to decide whether the Brotherhood`s participation in the transition gave the process credibility.

"There are organisations and individuals whose participation will give credibility in the eyes of some Egyptians and concerns in the eyes of other Egyptians," said Hillary.

Hillary also said Egyptians will have to clear a number of hurdles in order to stage elections in September.

For example, they would have to determine how to "amend the constitution to bring it more in line with the kind of democracy and political system" they seek, and set a deadline for reaching such a goal.

They would have to establish an electoral system that includes voter registration rolls.

She said the United States, European and other countries are ready to offer the expertise to help prepare for the elections.

"We`re going to try to work with a lot of like-minded countries around the world to offer whatever assistance we can," she said. "We have experts in holding credible elections, we have experts in writing constitutions."

She recalled that US experts joined international efforts to hold, "against all odds”, a successful referendum on independence for Sudan last month.

"This is important, to look over the horizon. You don`t want to get to September, have a failed election, and then people feel ... what was the point of it," he said.

Asked if seven months were enough time, she replied: "It`s up to them. But I think, with a concerted effort, with the kind of timelines and concrete steps I`m calling for, it could be done.”

"But it will take enormous cooperation, not just on the part of the government, but on the part of civil society and political actors," the secretary said.

The democratic transition "is a very important moment in Egyptian history and holds great promise”, Hillary said. "But like everything else in life and politics, there are downsides, and we have to see how all of that plays out."

Bureau Report