Protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Feb. 1,...

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Feb. 1, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

A special envoy dispatched to Egypt by President Barack Obama told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the U.S. saw his presidency at an end and urged him not to seek another term in office while preparing for an orderly transition to real democracy in elections, American officials said Tuesday.

The message was delivered to Mubarak on Monday by Frank Wisner, a respected former U.S. ambassador to Egypt dispatched to Cairo by Obama amid mounting anti-government protests and demands for the Egyptian leader to step down, according to two officials familiar with the envoy’s mission.

Wisner and Mubarak are friends and the officials said the two had a back-and-forth discussion in which each provided the other with their perspectives on developments.

Wisner’s message was disclosed as the Obama administration ramped up outreach to the hundreds of thousands determined to force their long-time leader out of power, and opened talks with a possible successor, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

The moves signaled that after a week of carefully balancing support for protesters and its close ally of three decades, the U.S. has decided that continued backing for Mubarak as president was untenable.

During the course of his conversation with the Egyptian president, Wisner expressed the U.S “view that his tenure as president is coming to a close,” according to one official. A second official said Wisner had relayed Obama’s assessment that Mubarak should not seek re-election in a scheduled September presidential vote.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the matter ahead of an expected speech to the Egyptian people by Mubarak in which he is expected to address his future.

While the current U.S. envoy to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, spoke with ElBaradei, the escalating anti-government protests led the United States to order non-essential American personnel and their families to leave the country.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mubarak should “step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.” “It is not enough for President Mubarak to pledge ‘fair’ elections,” Kerry wrote in The New York Times. “The most important step that he can take is to address his nation and declare that neither he nor the son he has been positioning as his successor will run in the presidential election this year. Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation.” By midday Tuesday, the administration had yet to make any public comments on the protests or Mubarak, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton briefed Obama and other top advisers at the White House. Some kind of statement was expected after Mubarak’s television appearance. The U.S. said it has ferried about 1,600 Americans and their family members out of Egypt since Monday. The State Department said Americans were struggling to reach Cairo’s airport because roads were closed as a result of demonstrations. Some 60 U.S. citizens were expected to be flown out later Tuesday, with another 1,000 likely to be evacuated from the country in the coming days. On Tuesday, the U.S. added Frankfurt, Germany as a destination and the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor as departure points. The Cairo airport is open and operating but the department warned that flights may be disrupted and that people should be prepared for lengthy waits. Egypt’s army leadership is reassuring the U.S. that the powerful military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but is instead allowing protesters to “wear themselves out,” according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers. The Egyptians use a colloquial saying to describe their strategy — a boiling pot with a lid that’s too tight will blow up the kitchen, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

That was always the argument that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who Mubarak tapped as his vice president on Friday, made regarding the handling of the Gaza border crossing point, every time visiting U.S. officials asked their counterparts to stop the smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. He would say the best way to head off Gaza unrest is to allow a relief valve that permitted them to bring in supplies.

The officers expressed concern with White House statements appearing to side with the protesters, saying that stoking revolt to remove Mubarak risks creating a vacuum that the banned-but-powerful Muslim Brotherhood could fill, the official said.

While the Brotherhood claims to have closed its paramilitary wing long ago, it has fought politically to gain power. More threatening to the Mubarak regime, it has built a nationwide charity and social network that much of Egypt’s poverty stricken population depends on for its survival.

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