Clinton test drives a new form of diplomacy in Egypt

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi, right, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, March 15, 2011. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was pressing Egypt's transitional leaders Tuesday to follow through on pledges for democratic reform after the ouster of the country's longtime autocratic president in a popular revolt.
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi, right, in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

CAIRO -- Two years ago this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveled in how close, so very close she was to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At a time when Clinton's own State Department was calling Mubarak a severe abuser of human rights, Clinton was calling Mubarak and his wife "friends of my family."

Now Clinton is in Egypt in search of new friends, in a brand new Egypt, and is test driving a new kind of diplomacy. She's the first top U.S. diplomat to visit an Egypt not ruled by Mubarak in 30 years.

Hillary Clinton to Egyptians: Seize this moment

There's no president, no Parliament, and the army leaders who run things have promised to give up power so quickly even some hardened revolutionaries say they actually want more time to form political parties with coherent platforms. The place is steamrolling toward democracy -- which is good. But the ready- fire-aim, speed of it all means no one knows what emerges when the world's largest Arab nation goes to vote.

At a meeting tonight of 30 political activists and civic leaders, Secretary Clinton, who came with fresh promises of economic aid, faced a round of very tough where've-you-been resentment and criticism.

"They (the U.S.) did nothing when we were being tortured by Mubarak, " said Basem Fathy, a veteran of Tahrir Square, voicing a common sentiment. It wasn't so much anti-American (those groups refused the invite) -- it was more "we don't need America."

Several participants said they appreciated the secretary's visit, but all they really want from her was the economic help --and the occasional prod to keep the Egyptian army in line.

You might forgive some of the secretary's effusive praise of Mubarak two years ago, a man she well knew was a despot. At the time, the U.S. needed Mubarak: he helped in the fight against al Qaeda, never piled on the Israeli settlement issue and convincingly argued that his repressions kept the theocrats and extremists in their boxes.

Now there are no boxes, and those extremists can run for office and even though they will compete with a Facebook generation that seems to want no part of them. This once easy, predictable U.S.-Egyptian relationship all of a sudden is not.

Watch CBS News' Alex Ortiz's interview with Egypt TV's Shahira Amin, who interviewed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.