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Gibbs signals U.S. backing for a more deliberate process in Egypt

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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White House shifting tone on Egypt
  • The White House spokesman warns of a "bumpy" process toward change
  • He calls for "a series of steps and a timeline" acceptable to the Egyptian people
  • Gibbs' comments follow talks between the government and opposition figures

Washington (CNN) -- Egypt faces a "bumpy" process in its transition from decades of repressive rule to a multiparty democracy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday in signaling U.S. backing for a more deliberate approach to political negotiations.

In a briefing with reporters, Gibbs repeated the U.S. insistence on meaningful change in Egypt, but he added that the government there should "outline a series of steps and a timeline that the Egyptian people are comfortable with."

His comments reflected the reality of President Hosni Mubarak's insistence that he will remain in power through the end of his term in September instead of ceding to demands for his immediate ouster by protesters who have roiled Cairo and the nation for 14 days.

Last week, Gibbs told reporters that reforms should take place immediately in reference to President Barack Obama's February 1 statement that Egypt's transition "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."

The Obama statement and other U.S. comments in following days were considered to be increasing pressure on Mubarak to step aside in order to maintain stability. However, Mubarak has said stability can only come from his continued presence while his government implements reforms demanded by the protesters.

On Monday, Gibbs said, "This is a process that is going to be at times bumpy, because when for 28 years you have had one leader, without ... really a robust opposition, it's going to take some time to work this stuff out."

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Gibbs outlined a transition toward multiparty negotiations that provided more leeway for Mubarak's government than previously expressed.

"The process has to be dynamic, and we have to see the government take part in a meaningful way and outline a series of steps and a timeline that the Egyptian people are comfortable with," Gibbs said.

In addition, Gibbs said, "We have to see those that are not involved in government put forward a set and a series of ideas of what they'd like to see so that negotiations can take place and we can move forward."

On Sunday, some Egyptian opposition figures met with Vice President Omar Suleiman to discuss steps toward democratic reforms including the possible end to the military emergency law that has been in place since Mubarak came to power in 1981, steps to ensure free media and communication, and plans to form a series of committees that would oversee changes aimed at bringing about a representative government.

The talks, while preliminary, symbolized concession on both sides. Some opposition figures had rejected any discussions until Mubarak stepped down, while a government statement issued on state TV after Sunday's meeting outlined future steps resulting from the meeting.

In a brief informal exchange with reporters on Monday, Obama said: "Obviously Egypt has to negotiate a path and I think they are making progress."

Later, Gibbs added that ultimately it was up to the Egyptian people to evaluate how much progress was taking place, saying: "Words are not enough. It is actions toward a meaningful change that the Egyptian people are most looking for."

He cited changes that already have occurred since the protests began on January 25, including Mubarak's announcement that he won't seek another term and that his son also won't run, as well as Mubarak's appointment of Suleiman as vice president with the job of bringing about reforms resulting in "a free and fair election."

Gibbs repeated U.S. assertions that it was up to the Egyptian people to decide the details of the transition, following weekend confusion over remarks by Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who met with Mubarak January 31.

Wisner told a security conference in Germany on Saturday that Mubarak "must stay in office" in order to bring about changes necessary for a smooth political transition in Egypt.

U.S. officials have since emphasized that Wisner was speaking for himself as an expert on the region, and not for the Obama administration.

Gibbs also repeated the administration stance that participants in the reform process and subsequent elections will be determined by the Egyptians. He downplayed the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's largest Islamic group that is officially banned but tolerated by the government.

Some analysts and U.S. politicians argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider anti-American and anti-Israel, could take over in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood participated in Sunday's meeting with Suleiman, but Gibbs said, "It would be horribly inaccurate to simply say that there are two factions in Egypt: One is the Muslim Brotherhood and the other is the government of Egypt."

"That's clearly not the case, and clearly wasn't the case in what we've seen transpire on the streets," Gibbs said, later adding: "For the process to be a legitimate process, it has to include a broad cross-section of those that are ... in Egyptian civil society and not involved in that government."

Members of the liberal parties Wafd and Ahrar also engaged in the talks with Suleiman.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said the Egyptian talks needed to be more inclusive.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said "major figures in Egyptian society" had not been invited. He didn't mention any groups or individuals by name.

At the same time, Crowley said opposition groups and demonstrators should test the government's motives in the talks.

"There are people who are holding the transition process at arm's length because they don't believe it's going to be credible," he said, "and our advice would be, you know, test the seriousness of the government and those who are participating to see if it can deliver, and from this people have confidence that change is actually going to occur."

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this story.