WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration conceded Monday that it will not endorse the demands of Egyptian protesters for embattled President Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately, saying a precipitous exit could set back the country's democratic transition.
After several days of mixed messages about whether it wants to see Mubarak stay or go, Washington stepped up calls for a faster, more inclusive national dialogue on reform in Egypt.
Under Egypt's constitution, Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days. U.S. officials said that's not enough time to prepare.
"A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Given the recent past, where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair there's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections."
"I think that would be a challenging undertaking," he said.
The administration coalesced around a position that cautiously welcomes nascent reform efforts begun by newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman that may or may not result in Mubarak's resignation before September, when new elections are to be held. Mubarak has said he will not run.
President Barack Obama said Egypt is making progress toward a solution to the political crisis enveloping the country and preparing for free elections to replace Mubarak.
"Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path and I think they're making progress." Obama told reporters.
He did not elaborate but his comments echoed those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who over the weekend threw U.S. support behind the Suleiman-led transition process and urged the international community to back it.
On Friday, Obama had seemed to welcome a quick departure, saying that now that Mubarak had made the hard decision not to run again he should "do the right thing."
Suleiman met for the first time Sunday with several major opposition groups but some notable elements were not included. U.S. officials said those talks had to be broader to gain credibility with the Egyptian people.
"Our concern is that so far, the discussions that are happening are not broad-based enough Crowley said.
"There are people who have not been invited in, and this needs to be inclusive," he said. "There are people who are holding the transition process at arm's length because they don't believe it's going to be credible."
The U.S. has declined to support demands of the protesters that Mubarak resign as a condition for talks with the government.
Clinton on Sunday questioned the wisdom of forcing him to leave the presidency right away. That stance was amplified by others on Monday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Egypt has already seen "monumental change" take place with Mubarak's vow not to seek another term, ruling out his son, Gamal, as his successor, and appointing a vice president, something the U.S. has been calling for decades.
"We have the beginnings of a process that is taking place, a process that we know has to include a series of steps that have to be taken and a series of things that have to be negotiated with a broad section of the opposition parties in order to move us toward a free and fair election," Gibbs said.
Crowley, along with Gibbs and other U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that decisions about Egypt's future will be made by the Egyptian people and that Washington is not dictating any course of action or timeline beyond calling for reforms to be enacted quickly and with deadlines for specific changes.
"The sooner this can happen, the better," he said. He declined to comment on when elections should be held but said the currently scheduled date of September was possible.
"It is doable within eight months," Crowley said. "But a lot depends on what happens from this point forward,"
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)