President Obama has told the embattled president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, that he should not run for another term in elections in the fall, effectively withdrawing American support for its closest Arab ally, according to American diplomats in Cairo and Washington.
Al Arabiya television, citing unnamed sources, reported that Mr. Mubarak would announce in a nationwide address Tuesday evening that he would not run for another term.
The message was conveyed to Mr. Mubarak by Frank G. Wisner, a seasoned former diplomat with deep ties to Egypt, these officials said. Mr. Wisner’s message, they said, was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader.
This back channel message, authorized directly by Mr. Obama, would appear to tip the administration beyond the delicate balancing act it has performed in the last week — resisting calls for Mr. Mubarak to step down, even as it has called for an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt.
It was not clear whether the administration favors Mr. Mubarak turning over the reins to a transitional government, composed of leaders of the opposition movement perhaps under the leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei, or a caretaker government led by members of the existing regime, including the newly-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.
But the decision to nudge Mr. Mubarak in the direction of leaving is a critical step for the United States in defining how its dealings not just with its most critical ally in the Arab world, but with the rising swell of popular anger on the streets of Cairo and in nearby countries like Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia.
Mr. Wisner, who is now heading back to Washington, is among the country’s most experienced diplomats, and a friend of Mr. Mubarak. His mission was to “keep a conversation going,” according to a close friend of Mr. Wisner’s.
As a result, this person said, the administration’s first message to the Egyptian leader was not that he had to leave office, but rather that his time in office was quickly coming to a close. Mr. Wisner, who consulted closely with the White House, is expected to be the point person to deal with Mr. Mubarak as the situation evolves, and perhaps as the administration’s message hardens.
Mr. Wisner’s mission took shape over the weekend in a White House meeting, after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recommended his name to the national security advisor, Thomas E. Donilon.
Reinforcing the administration’s message to Mr. Mubarak was an Op-ed article in The New York Times on Tuesday by Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he advised Mr. Mubarak to bow out gracefully “to make way for a new political structure.”