WASHINGTON – The United States is urging the Egyptian government to begin transition talks “immediately” and was reportedly pushing for President Hosni Mubarak to quit right away.
The New York Times reported that US and Egyptian officials were discussing a plan for Mubarak to turn power over now to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman.
The report, which cited administration officials and Arab diplomats, said the United States was seeking backing from the Egyptian military even though Mubarak himself was balking at the idea.
The White House sought to play down the notion there was a unique plan under consideration but did not issue an out-and-out denial of the Times report.
“It’s simply wrong to report that there’s a single US plan that’s being negotiated with the Egyptians,” a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration official told AFP.
The Times said the proposal calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to start a process to hold free and fair elections in September.
In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood has said it is ready to participate in talks on a transition as long as Mubarak is out.
“We stand with all the political forces supporting dialogue with whoever wants to implement reforms in the country after the departure of this unjust, corrupt tyrant,” Badie told the Qatar-based satellite channel.
On Thursday, the United States strongly denounced Egypt’s assault on the media, calling it an “orchestrated” effort to snuff out coverage of anti-government unrest.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden stepped up the pressure on Suleiman, named Mubarak’s first-ever vice president last week, to follow through on promises of change.
Biden called Suleiman, urging that “credible, inclusive negotiations begin immediately in order for Egypt to transition to a democratic government that addresses the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
He contacted Suleiman on a day in which he told protesters opposed to Mubarak to go home, describing their calls for his boss’s ouster as a recipe for chaos.
The White House said in a statement that Biden reiterated Obama’s recent criticism of violence in Egypt, which has seen pro-Mubarak gangs target protesters, and issued a new call for restraint.
“He stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don’t lead to violence and intimidation and for allowing journalists and human rights advocates to conduct their important work, including immediately releasing those who have been detained,” a White House statement said.
The Egyptian leader, who announced Tuesday that he would not run for re-election in September, said in an interview on Thursday that he would like to step aside, but said conditions were not right.
Mubarak told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that he was “fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot… for fear that the country would sink into chaos.”
“I don’t care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country, I care about Egypt,” he said.
Pitched battles between Mubarak supporters and regime opponents left at least eight people dead and more than 800 injured.
Echoing a wave of international concern over the worsening violence, Clinton “condemned in the strongest terms” attacks on reporters covering the unrest, peaceful protesters, human rights activists, and foreigners.
“There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and hold accountable those responsible for these attacks,” she said.
Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador in Cairo, registered “grave concern” earlier with Egyptian Foreign Minster Ahmed Abul Gheit about attacks on journalists, bloggers, activists and others, Clinton spokesman Philip Crowley said.
Crowley said there appears to be an “orchestrated” effort to prevent journalists covering the protests, something he said may be a dress rehearsal for Friday, when a “significant increase” in protesters is expected.
Crowley said Washington has traced the violence to “elements close to the government and the ruling party” even if it is not clear how far “up the chain” it goes.
The Washington Post said its Cairo bureau chief and a photographer had been detained on Thursday.
Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, ABC News, CNN, France 2, France 24, Radio-Canada, Le Soir have also all been targeted.