By Bridget Johnson and Jordy Yager - 02/05/11 05:51 PM EST
In a week of Capitol Hill vocally supporting Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators, lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the prospects of revolutionary fervor spreading to other critical countries in the Middle East.
Legislators have been clear about their desire for President Hosni Mubarak to let go of his nearly 30-year grip on power and begin the transition to democracy.
And the "Day of Rage" in Yemen on Thursday, which drew tens of thousands of protesters, prompted concern of upheaval in the al-Qaeda haven if Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for nearly 31 years, was ousted. In the face of mounting protests, Saleh said Wednesday that he will step down in 2013.
“Should we be concerned? Sure. We don’t know what this is going to lead
to in Yemen, much less in Egypt," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill. "So, yeah, there’s a lot of reason to be
concerned because there’s a lot of anger that bubbles up. I don’t know
of any way that one can predict with any confidence where it ends.
"Hopefully it ends with a democratic election, which the public and the people are entitled to and deserve," he said. "And hopefully that if it’s clear that that’s the path that it’s going to in Yemen, the people will be satisfied. That’s the key, there’s got to be a creditable commitment to democratic elections.”
"With respect to what is happening in Egypt and other countries such as Yemen, obviously the president, the secretary of State have kind of -- I've already indicated that, look, we are watching, we are monitoring, but what we hope for is a peaceful, open and democratic process," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday. "That's the goal."
On Saturday morning, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough convened a Deputies Committee meeting on Egypt at the White House. President Obama was to receive a briefing on the situation from his national security staff later in the afternoon, and he spoke on the phone with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Protests continued for the 12th straight day in Egypt as the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party stepped down in what was viewed as another government concession in an attempt to quell protests.
“We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary, and look forward to additional steps,” an administration official said on background.
Vice President Biden spoke with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman on Saturday about the need for a "concrete reform agenda" with a "clear timeline," the White House said.
At the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, ahead of a planned Quartet meeting on Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said there were risks in the Egypt transition that could result in "just another authoritarian regime."
Clinton said the region was being hit by "a perfect storm of trends" including too few jobs for young people and frustrations with repressive governments shared over social networking sites.
"This is what has driven demonstrators into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the region. The status quo is simply not sustainable," Clinton said. "Across the region, there must be clear and real progress toward open, transparent, fair, and accountable systems."
Once again showing the ripple effect across the Middle East, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that he wouldn't run for a third term in 2014. "Eight years is enough for him, in order to not convert to a dictatorship," Ali al-Moussawi told The Associated Press.
Al-Maliki also announced Friday that he'd give half of his annual salary back to the government, which was seen as a move to insulate Baghdad from the anger fueled by wide gaps between rich and poor in the region.
However, planned "Days of Rage" demonstrations in Syria on Friday and Saturday fizzled in attracting many protesters against the regime of President Bashar Assad, who boasted that his iron-fisted rule is immune to the pro-democracy fervor and spread plenty of plainclothes security officers through Damascus to ensure that.
In outreach to Yemen, Obama called Saleh on Wednesday "to welcome the significant reform measures" announced and to ask that no force be used against the protests, which have been described as peaceful.
Obama did ask that Saleh continue to take "forceful" action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the White House said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former presidential
candidate and member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental
Affairs Committee, told The Hill that they were carefully watching the
region -- and Yemen specifically – to see whether extremist
organizations that have been known to employ or support terrorists
push to take on greater governmental roles in response to the
Washington has cast a wary eye towards Yemen in recent years, as it has become known as a training ground and haven for terrorists with anti-American ideologies. The man accused of attempting to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 put a heightened focus on Yemen when news surfaced that he trained with AQAP.
In the wake of the failed plot, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the
chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Committee, in December called for the U.S. to take preemptive action in Yemen to
root out al-Qaeda affiliates there. Lieberman's office did not return
requests for comment on the most recent developments.
Kerry told The Hill that radical groups should be monitored for their involvement in the Yemen protests and reforms, but that the fate of the country rests in the hands of the Yemeni people.
“Of course there’s a concern that radical groups can try to fill the vacuum,” said Kerry in an interview. “But right now, the people are going to have to decide these things in these countries and hopefully leaders will act responsibly so that they can have a peaceful transformation and harness the energy that the people have in a constructive way, rather than doing what we saw in Egypt in its confrontations.”
McCain agreed with Kerry that a scrutinizing eye needs to be cast on the radical groups in Yemen as its government shifts. But McCain also told The Hill that, depending on how the situation plays out, the U.S. may kick itself for not doing more to push for reforms earlier in Yemen.
“I think the United States has got to stand, as much as possible, for the pillars of freedom and democracy that we stand for, but I wish it were that simple,” said McCain in an interview.
“We may be paying a price for not advocating enough for a long time," he said. "But it is what it is, and so we’ve got to make the best of it and recognize the real danger of some of these countries falling under the influence of radical Islamic organizations, which is then a threat to America’s national security.”
In the kingdom of Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood declined an offer to participate in the new cabinet though Islamists called a meeting with King Abdullah on Thursday "positive."
"Jordan's reform drive has decelerated and stumbled, which cost the country a lot of chances to achieve progress," the monarch told the Islamists, according to a statement from the meeting. "My vision for comprehensive reforms and modernization must be translated into practical and serious steps focusing on all Jordanians and the country's interests."
Abdullah, who addressed a joint session of Congress in 2007, has enjoyed steady support on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers honored the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Jordanian relations and the 10-year anniversary of the king's reign with a resolution in the 111th Congress.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who introduced the House version that drew nearly three dozen co-sponsors, said that high unemployment and rising food costs among a young population were a common thread in the spreading unrest.
"Jordan has a right to be concerned as are we with the potential for even greater unrest," he told The Hill, adding that the similar ingredients to the other protests plus a large Palestinian population could prove to be a "combustible mix."
Still, he stressed, "King Abdullah is not Hosni Mubarak." The ruling family is a stabilizing force that has enjoyed a good relationship with the Jordanian people, he said, and the government is a "very key player and a voice for moderation in the Middle East."
"I think it would be very wise for Jordan to continue and indeed accelerate the pace of its economic reforms," Schiff said, adding that changing the cabinet wouldn't quell the dissent.
"I think there would be great concern in the Congress and administration if there was abrupt change in Jordan," he said.
Clinton on Thursday called the king to affirm the countries' partnership and say that the U.S. is "eager" to support Jordan in these "difficult times."
Schiff said that the U.S. can have confidence in the democratic principles it espouses and support "productive" change in the region, such as helping Jordan with the economic burden that has been caused by an influx of Iraqi refugees.
"No doubt the Muslim Brotherhood will try to find a role for itself in the revolution but it's not leading the charge," he said of the regional wave.
Sam Youngman contributed to this report
This story was updated at 5:25 p.m.