Obama hopes for diplomatic 'progress' despite envoy scandal

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The Independent US

President Barack Obama welcomed "progress" in finding a way out of Egypt's political crisis yesterday despite negotiations falling short of protesters' demands for Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately. "Egypt has to negotiate a path," Mr Obama said. "And I think they're making progress."

Wobbles in the White House's handling of the uprising remained hard to disguise. Even as officials have rushed to disassociate themselves from remarks made by the US special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, on the desirability of leaving Mr Mubarak in office a little longer, the evidence mounts that they may privately agree with him.

The Independent yesterday exposed Mr Wisner's paid position with Patton Boggs, a law firm that works for Mr Mubarak's regime. Mr Wisner largely failed in his efforts a week ago to become an intermediary between Mr Mubarak and the White House and is now back in the US.

In an embarrassment to the administration, Mr Wisner said on Saturday that Mr Mubarak's continued leadership was "critical" to a successful outcome. "I think that Mr Wisner's comments just don't reflect where the administration has been from Day One," Senator John Kerry said. "And that was not the message that he was asked to deliver or did deliver there."

Hillary Clinton, travelling back from the same European conference, was even more dismissive. "Oh, we all respect Frank and his service for many years, and appreciate his travel to Egypt. But he does not speak for the administration," she said.

Some experts said Mr Wisner's professional links may have encouraged the US leadership to send him. "They clearly intended to send someone who would be a friendly face and not a hostile force," said Robert Danin, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet there was no evidence yesterday to suggest that the US was doing anything to counter Mr Wisner's position by trying to dislodge Mr Mubarak sooner rather than later. All mention of Mr Mubarak stepping down quickly, as the pro-democracy opposition is demanding, seems to have leaked out of Washington's rhetoric. "The most important thing is there has to be a process towards meaningful change," Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama's spokesman, said

The administration seemed inclined towards a transition solution led by Vice-President Omar Suleiman. "I fear the administration is heading toward acceptance of the perpetuation of the Egyptian dictatorship in all but name," Robert Kagan, of the Brookings Institution, told The Politico newspaper. Steve Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, shared the alarm: "It plays right into the hands of the regime. The longer this goes, the better it is for Mubarak, Suleiman, and the rest of the military-dominated leadership."

Patton Boggs is one of several large US law firms that benefits from more than $1m (£620,000) in lobbying fees the Egyptian government pays to protect its interests in Washington.