6 Feb. 2011,
Frank Wisner's apparent love song to Hosni Mubarak has left confusion behind him. Speaking on a video link-up from New York to the Munich Security Conference, Barack Obama's special envoy to Egypt veered wildly off-message in seemingly fond remarks about the Egyptian autocrat.
Wisner, who had just returned from Cairo, started by making a constitutional argument for Mubarak to stay. If the presidency is vacated, Wisner said, the speaker of the parliament would fill the post, and elections would have to be held within two months. Those elections would have to be fought under the existing rules, which are unacceptable to the opposition.
The argument ignored the allowance under the constitution for the president to delegate powers, which he has done in the past while undergoing medical treatment. But at least the argument sounding dispassionate. What followed didn't.
The president must stay in office to steer those changes through. I therefore believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical; it's his opportunity to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country and this is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward
Wisner's words bewildered the western officials gathered in Munich, raising a number of questions. Do Egypt and the world owe it to Mubarak to give him the chance "to write his own legacy". And did Mubarak give 60 years of service to Egypt or is it the other way round?
It raised other questions in Washington, like who is making US policy on Egypt? At the same venue hours before, Hillary Clinton had made it quite clear that US policy was to back the vice president Omar Suleiman and his transition process.
The state department anxiously played down Wisner's remarks, describing them as "his own", but the whole episode was a reminder of the inherent problems in hiring special envoys from the ranks of retired diplomats who no longer feel constrained by state department discipline.
Telephone conversations with Suleiman in the past 48 hours have given European leaders the impression that the transition is already underway. He has impressed them with a laundry list of planned reforms and his brisk determined manner. European officials believe that power is shifting out of Mubarak's hands, but they cannot be sure.
A lot of options are being discussed. Mubarak could delegate powers while taking sick leave or writing his memoirs in Sharm el-Sheikh, to allow the constitution to be changed. In other words, he would be able to stay in office at least formally. But Wisner's comments will reinforce an impression on the streets of Cairo that Washington's heart really belongs to Mubarak, rather than the Egyptian people.