WASHINGTON (AP) - Seeking reform in Egypt, the U.S. increasingly is counting on a small cadre of President Hosni Mubarak's closest advisers to guide a hoped-for transition from autocracy to democracy.
It's a plan that relies on long relationships with military men and bureaucrats who owe their professional success to Mubarak's iron rule. To the regret of some U.S. diplomats, it's also a plan that steers around the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist political movement that almost surely would play a central role in any future popularly chosen government.
Not that Washington has much choice.
Mubarak has so smothered potential political opposition that there is no clear alternative for the U.S. as a bargaining partner, even if dealing with aging Mubarak stalwarts reduces U.S. credibility with Egyptians fed up with the Mubarak era.
The Obama administration's telephone diplomacy this past week was indicative of the American strategy to keep Egypt from tearing itself apart.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Omar Suleiman, Egypt's 74-year-old intelligence chief who became vice president last week and Biden talked with him again Saturday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates chatted with his 85-year-old counterpart, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discussed the situation with Egypt's top military official, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, 62. Another key figure is Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a 69-year-old former Air Force chief.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website encapsulate part of the problem with trusting these men to be the head ushers of democratic and economic change.
Beyond the generational split with young protesters disgruntled by years of harsh unemployment, inequality and political repression, the Mubarak men belong to a military elite whose wealth and power are inextricably linked to the 82-year-old president.
"Egypt's military is in decline," a 2008 U.S. cable says, summarizing a series of conversations with academics and analysts. The memo cites a professor in Egypt as saying "the sole criteria for promotion is loyalty and the ... leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being 'too competent' and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime."
Yet the military's authority remains strong and its interests in Egypt vast. Mubarak built an army of almost a half-million men that holds large stakes in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries.
A diplomatic cable also describes large land holdings of the military along the Nile Delta and the Red Sea, and suggests that the top brass would not be served by important change toward democracy and freer markets.
Most analysts agree that the military "generally opposes economic reforms," according to the U.S. diplomatic correspondence.
The exchanges describe an Egypt ripe for political unrest. A 2007 note from the U.S. ambassador at time, Francis J. Ricciardone, said Mubarak's "reluctance to lead more boldly" was hurting his effectiveness.
Ricciardone singled out Egypt's elite 40,000-member counterterror police as he described a "culture of impunity." The ambassador noted that the Egyptian government shut down a human rights group that had helped the family of a detainee killed in 2003. The officers were exonerated of torture and murder charges.
The cables also provide glimpses of the difficult environment for Egypt's bloggers and journalists. During protests in Cairo this past week, pro-government mobs beat, threatened and intimidated reporters attempting to inform the world of the unfolding events in the country.
In one cable, an Egyptian blogger complained to the U.S. Embassy after YouTube and Google removed videos from his blog apparently showing a Bedouin shot by Egyptian police and thrown on a garbage dump, and another one of a woman being tortured in a police station.
The cables contain mixed assessments of some of those being counted on to lead Egypt's transition after six decades when the country's four presidents all came from the officer corps.
Suleiman, referred to as the "Mubarak consigliere," comes out better than others. He is described as disappointed as far back as 2007 that he had yet to be named vice president. Yet on first glance, he seems an ideal candidate to guide Egypt through an unstable period.
At a time when Mubarak's son Gamal was being promoted as a future president, a U.S. cable says Suleiman "would at the least have to figure in any succession scenario."
"He could be attractive to the ruling apparatus and the public at large as a reliable figure unlikely to harbor ambitions for another multi-decade presidency," according to the cable.
But it is unclear what that will mean now as thousands of Egyptians demand Mubarak's immediate resignation.
There's little indication Suleiman will show his longtime boss the door, even if Obama administration officials are discussing options that include having Mubarak step aside now for a transitional government headed by Suleiman.
"His loyalty to Mubarak seems rock-solid," a cable written four years ago concludes.
Under one proposal, Mubarak would hand his powers to his vice president, though not his title immediately, to give the ruler a graceful exit.
Suleiman has offered negotiations with all political forces, including protest leaders and the regime's top foe, the Muslim Brotherhood. He's spoken of independent supervision of elections, loosening restrictions on who can run for president and term limits for leaders.
He has some support.
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. atomic energy chief and Nobel peace laureate, said he respects Suleiman as a possible negotiating partner. Some protesters have backed the idea of Suleiman playing a leading role in the transition; others see him too much of a Mubarak government figure and want him out, along with the president.
Then there's Tantawi, known among younger servicemen as "Mubarak's poodle," according to one informant. His unbending support for Mubarak is described in worse terms.
"'This incompetent defense minister"' who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is 'running the military into the ground,"' a U.S. diplomat wrote, relaying the assessment of an unidentified professor in Egypt.
Tantawi reached out to the demonstrators Friday by visiting the square that has been the rallying point for Cairo's protests. He held friendly but heated discussions, telling people that most of their demands have been met and they should go home. "The people and the army are one hand!" they chanted during Tantawi's brief stop.
Anan is largely respected among U.S. officials. The cables spare him the harsh criticism doled out to Tantawi, who is lambasted in various memos as the chief impediment to modernizing Egypt's military.
But the fear of American officials illustrated throughout the notes - and offered by the Mubarak government as its main excuse for resisting democracy - is the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
U.S. officials say there have been no contacts with the hardline Islamist movement. It has formed the most organized opposition to Mubarak's three-decade autocracy but opposes much of the U.S. agenda in the region, such as Arab-Israeli peace efforts.
"The specter of an MB presidency haunts secular Egyptians," a cable noted. Still, it said such a development was "highly unlikely" and that the military wouldn't support an extremist takeover.
But avoiding talks with the group could be a mistake for the U.S., if it means a missed opportunity for some influence with a group that could become a dominant force in Egypt's future.
The United States has confirmed discussions with ElBaradei, who has "captured the imagination of some section of the secular elite that wants democracy but is wary of the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood," according to a February 2010 cable.
ElBaradei's biggest challenge would be mustering credibility among Egyptians on the streets, it predicted. The jury is still out on that question, even if the Muslim Brotherhood has expressed support for ElBaradei as an acceptable point-man for leading the pro-democracy movement. The military's view of him hasn't really been made clear.
Ultimately, the protests haven't made Egypt's post-Mubarak future any clearer. What's obvious now is that neither Mubarak will run in September elections. But no one knows how the military will react to possibly months more of instability.
"In a messier succession scenario," a 2008 cable noted, "it becomes more difficult to predict the military's actions."
"While midlevel officers do not necessarily share their superiors' fealty to the regime," it is "unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader."
They military won't have to act alone, and no officials are warning of a military coup. But the military elite's reticence for change could prove a hindrance to democratic transformation.
U.S. officials consistently have criticized the government's response to the crisis, and officials say Suleiman's outreach efforts have been too narrow and not credible enough to gain widespread support and usher in real democracy.
As for Mubarak, who said in an ABC interview Thursday that Egypt would slip into chaos if he didn't serve out his remaining seven months, the cables suggest he never really had a succession plan - long "the elephant in the room of Egyptian politics."
"Mubarak himself seems to be trusting to God and the inertia of the military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition," a 2007 cable said.
Associated Press writer Douglas Birch contributed to this report.