Democrats and Republicans sternly warned the Obama administration on Thursday that it must prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power in Egypt.
Lawmakers in both parties fear that if the Islamic group gained power, a longtime U.S. ally in the toughest neighborhood in the world could be lost.
“Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood should not be on the table,” warned House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
The warnings came as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shocked Washington and Cairo by defiantly announcing he will remain in office while ceding some powers to his handpicked vice president.
His address was a blow to the crowds of protesters in Cairo, who had gathered to celebrate their president’s departure amid a whirlwind of reports that he would step down immediately.
It also surprised Washington, where CIA Director Leon Panetta had told the House Intelligence Committee earlier on Wednesday there was a “high likelihood” that Mubarak would announce his immediate resignation.
President Obama appeared to hint at an expected transition in remarks at Northern Michigan University, where he said the world was watching a historic and transformative moment for the Middle East.
Hours later, Obama watched Mubarak’s televised speech aboard Air Force One, then headed to the White House to huddle with his national security advisers.
Mubarak said he is “determined to fulfill” his term as president, which expires in September, and will stay in office “until I surrender Egypt” to a new leader. The embattled Egyptian leader also said he has “delegated” some powers to his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, “according to the constitution.”
Saying his nation stands at “a historical moment,” Mubarak vowed to remain in Egypt “until I am buried in the ground.”
Mubarak also took a shot at Obama and other foreign leaders, saying “foreign dictations or interventions” would not be listened to or accepted.
In a statement released Thursday evening that made no mention of Mubarak, Obama urged Egypt’s government to speak clearly, saying its people could not tell whether the promised transition would be sufficient or meaningful.
“The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity,” he said.
The president also called for the emergency law to be lifted in Egypt.
Though demonstrations against Mubarak have been largely secular, fears that the Muslim Brotherhood could take over after him have been voiced since the beginning of the crisis.
Members of the Brotherhood and other opposition groups met with Suleiman on Sunday in talks that sent shockwaves through Egypt and across the region. The group favors a government based on religious law, and many analysts question whether democracy would be possible if the group were to seize power.
“Why would you load a virus into the system?” asked Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), comparing the group to a computer program. “Nothing good will come of it,” he said, adding that the Brotherhood “would destroy the government.”
The administration has been exceedingly cautious in comments about groups that could take power in Egypt, and during the three-hour hearing, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg barely uttered the words “Muslim Brotherhood,” despite the questioning.
Several times Steinberg told the committee the administration would oppose any group that does not “respect democratic principles” or an “orderly process” for setting up a new government.
The White House and State Department are working to promote democratic “institutions and processes” tailored to prevent “extremist voices from hijacking” the Egyptian government, Steinberg said.
Lawmakers sounded few alarms about Suleiman assuming the powers of the presidency, or about an even larger role for the Egyptian military.
Lawmakers applauded the military for not using force against anti-Mubarak protesters, crediting those forces with maintaining stability during the tense weeks. And none questioned a new regime controlled in part or outright by the military.
But Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned U.S. officials about placing too much support behind Suleiman or the military.
While the vice president supports some U.S. strategic aims, “he also is someone who has been directly involved in the kinds of things people there have been protesting about.”
“The problem here is when you have no good options, there’s no one good option,” Cordesman said.
With no clear path to democracy in Egypt evident, panel members also questioned whether Washington is getting a good deal on billions in civilian and military aid it has sent to that nation over the years.
Berman said he hopes the administration is pressing all parties that might grab power in Egypt to preserve a provision in that nation’s current constitution that requires religion and government to be kept separate.
The Obama administration is walking a tightrope, clearly aiming not to be viewed as supporting any one opposition group — or the Egyptian military — over the others.
Still, Obama said Thursday that he wants the protesters in Egypt “to know America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.”