Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's leadership remains crucial for now as the country heads into a transition to democracy, a US envoy who met him this week said on Saturday, cautioning that the situation remains precarious.
Frank Wisner, who was dispatched to Cairo on Monday, said he is increasingly hopeful that Egypt can manage a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy. He said by video link from New York to a security conference in Munich that "the flexibility is there, the imagination is there."
But he cautioned that "this is a very volatile and dangerous time." Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, said that the president's departure would under the current constitution result in elections in two months under conditions that are "broadly unacceptable" to protesters.
"You need to get a national consensus around the preconditions of the next step forward, and the president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through," Wisner said. "I therefore believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical _ it's his opportunity to write his own legacy."
Mubarak has said that he won't seek another term in office but demonstrators are demanding that he go now.
Wisner pointed to a need to "control rhetoric." "The more Egyptians hear from the outside world that the president's got to go, and this has got to happen, that's got to happen, we create a negative force inside of Egypt itself," he argued.
In addition, "we've got to be particularly sensitive to make it clear that the strength of Egypt's armed forces will be maintained," he said. He pointed to "my country's responsibility ... to continue the flow of assistance that we've provided over the years."
US Sen John McCain, who also attended the conference, underlined what he sees as the need for Mubarak to go quickly. "The longer the delay, the more likely it is you will see a radical element interject itself into the situation."
Earlier on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said protests in the Middle East awaken memories of the events that ended communism in eastern Europe.
But Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and entered politics as communism crumbled amid protests in 1989, said any transition needs to be orderly, and cautioned against assuming that the West's democratic model can simply be exported elsewhere.
"Who would we be if we did not say we stand on the side of these people who are expressing what bothers them?," she asked. "There will be change in Egypt," she said.
Still, drawing on her own memories of starting out with a new pro democracy party that failed to make much of a mark in elections a few months after the Berlin Wall fell, she cautioned against moving too fast. "If you're in this kind of process of upheaval, things just can't go fast enough," Merkel said.
But, she added, it doesn't make sense to hold elections very quickly "as the beginning of a process of democratization _ you have to give people a chance to create structures."
Merkel spoke alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Neither leader would say what should happen to Mubarak, whose immediate departure is a key demand of Egyptian protesters. "I don't think we in the West should be the ones to point fingers and say it's this leader or that leader who must go now or start now," Cameron said.
However, "to those who say what we need is to stick to the regime (in the interest of) stability, there is no stability in Egypt today," he added.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged leaders across the Middle East to embrace democratic reforms. She said change is a "strategic necessity" that will make Arab nations stronger and their people more prosperous and less susceptible to extremist ideologies.
"The status quo is simply not sustainable," she said.