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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration this weekend cast off an unusually candid diplomat sent to urge Hosni Mubarak to step down as president of Egypt, but appears now to be echoing the sentiments of Amb. Frank Wisner that an "orderly transition" can't take place in a power vacuum.
While several U.S. officials disowned Wisner, the retired U.S. diplomat whom Obama sent to Cairo last week to push Mubarak out, they agreed that it may be too difficult for Egypt to hold free and fair elections without some time for the institutions necessary to be put into place.
Wisner shocked a conference of diplomats assembled in Munich Saturday when he said that Mubarak had to keep a leadership role at least temporarily if the "fragile glimmerings" of progress were to take hold as quickly as needed to prevent radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood from filling the void.
"President Mubarak's role remains utterly critical in the days ahead while we sort our way toward a future" in which Egypt is peaceful and moderate, and committed to its international obligations, including its peace treaty with Israel, Wisner said via teleconference.
He added that the international community had to play a "protective and encouraging role."
"There is a chance, but we are in the early stages of seeing this take shape," Wisner said. "It is not certain that matters cannot slip off the rails, that you can't have renewed violence, violence in which radicals can push their case forward."
Nearly immediately the administration distanced itself from Wisner, whom critics say was recalled because of his ties to the Egyptian government -- he worked for a firm that represents Egypt in the United States, not an uncommon activity among retired diplomats.
"Former Ambassador Wisner is not an employee of the government," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday. "He was, based on his broad experience in Egypt, asked by the State Department ... to travel to Cairo and have a specific conversation with President Mubarak. He did, and reported that back to us. But his views on who should or shouldn't be the head of Egypt don't represent the views of our administration."
"Oh, we all respect Frank and his service for many years, and appreciate his travel to Egypt. But he does not speak for the administration," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday evening on her way back from Munich.
But even as Clinton walked Wisner out onto the plank, she agreed that an "orderly transition" will take some time, and suggested that perhaps Mubarak will need to remain until that could occur.
"As I understand the constitution, if the president were to resign, he would be succeeded by the speaker of the house. And presidential elections would have to be held in 60 days. Now, the Egyptians are the ones who are having to grapple with the reality of what they must do. ... I think there is an effort underway within the civil society, the opposition, the political parties, to say, 'Okay, what comes next? And how do we get from where we are to where we want to end up?'"
Clinton added that forcing Mubarak to leave office quickly could complicate the already enormous challenges Egypt faces in transforming itself from autocracy to democracy. In fact, Clinton said, Mubarak's departure could affect "significant actions" he has himself taken to get the reform process started.
She said that Mubarak should be recognized for the steps he's taken to retreat from leadership, even if they fall short of what angry protesters in the streets of Cairo are demanding. And she said Mubarak had gotten off to a good start by announcing he would not seek re-election in a scheduled September presidential vote, removing his son from the succession picture and naming a vice president who has now begun a dialogue with the opposition.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley added to that on Monday, saying if Mubarak stepped down today, the constitution does have a system for holding elections, but "whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive open election given the recent past where quite honestly elections were free and fair ... There's a lot that has to be done."
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which Wisner is a member, told Fox News that "more than not" the administration has gotten it right on diplomatic steps in Egypt, although early on too much emphasis was given on getting rid of Mubarak.
"I think there's real risk in terms of the message that sends. I think, though, in the last 48 hours, we're seeing an interesting shift, first from Frank Wisner, who is the president's envoy, and then from Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, speaking in Germany. They want to slow down the clock. And the reason is you got to buy time for the politics in Egypt to catch up because the only group right now that's in a position to take advantage of the mayhem is the Muslim Brotherhood. So what you need to do is buy time to level the playing field," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.