With Egypt's major cities flooded by protesters demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Obama on Tuesday took...
With Egypt’s major cities flooded by protesters demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Obama on Tuesday took another major step away from the United States’ strongest Arab ally, telling him that an orderly transition to a new regime “must begin now.”
All but dismissing Mubarak’s announcement that he would step down from the presidency in September as insufficient, Obama came closer than at any previous point in the eight-day crisis to telling Mubarak his departure can’t wait.
Speaking on national television, Obama said he had told Mubarak in a 30-minute telephone conversation that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now.”
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The Egyptian president, Obama said, “recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable, and that a change must take place.”
A White House official who asked not to be identified described the phone conversation as “direct and frank.”
Mubarak, who said he intended to stay in power “for the remaining months” of his fifth term, spoke earlier — hours after hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators staged their largest rallies yet across Egypt to demand he step aside immediately.
“The Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of his achievements over the years in serving Egypt and its people,” he said, wearing a dark suit and seeming vigorous in the speech broadcast on state television. “This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil.”
His message didn’t satisfy protesters.
“He needs to leave right now. We’ve already waited 30 years, and we don’t want to wait anymore,” said Amy Hashem, 23, who was among the thousands of demonstrators who have vowed to occupy Tahrir Square, Cairo’s central plaza, until Mubarak leaves office.
The Egyptian president made his announcement after Obama sent a personal envoy — a retired ambassador to Egypt — to deliver a similar message that apparently failed to have the full influence Obama had sought. Obama had specified that Mubarak not only should not run for office but should also block his son, Gamal, from contesting the presidency.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had added another condition that the administration hasn’t acknowledged publicly as its position: that Mubarak appoint a caretaker government and depart sooner rather than later.
But Mubarak made no mention of Gamal in his televised statement and instead sketched a transition that would last into September and possibly well beyond.
U.S. officials privately questioned whether Mubarak’s concession would placate a swelling protest movement.
Obama’s envoy, former U.S. diplomat Frank Wisner, had urged Mubarak in a face-to-face meeting to announce that neither he nor his son would run in presidential elections scheduled for later this year.
Wisner’s message was, “You’ve got to move, and the sooner the better,” said a senior administration official who like others requested anonymity to speak more freely.
“President Mubarak has shifted,” the senior official said. “He has gone through a process, where ‘OK, I can manage this, I can reform the government,’ but each of those steps has kind of been overtaken by the size and speed with which the movement has made clear a demand for him to step aside.”
Said a second U.S. official: “Had this been announced three or four days ago, maybe it would have been enough.”
The first official said the U.S. government is growing increasingly worried that, unless a resolution is reached quickly, the demonstration will continue and the food and fuel shortages, bank closures and other economic fallout from the upheaval could ignite serious, widespread violence. The administration, however, is having trouble trying to impress that danger on Mubarak and his inner circle, he said.
“The Egyptian economy is kind of grinding down. Markets are closed. Banks are closed,” he said. “Our concern is that the longer this goes on without a resolution, the greater the (economic) impact, which means the greater potential for violence. We just continue to try to find ways to communicate that to President Mubarak and those around him.”
Easing away from Mubarak is a monumental move by the United States, and appears to reflect a desire not to be caught on the wrong side of history or of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who say they will be satisfied with nothing less than Mubarak’s departure.
In another signal to the Egyptian president, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey talked Tuesday with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear watchdog who has emerged as a spokesman for the opposition clamoring for an end to Mubarak’s 30-year-rule, the State Department said.
The contact was believed to be the first between a senior U.S. official and ElBaradei since Egypt’s political crisis erupted Jan. 25.
After Mubarak spoke, ElBaradei demanded that Mubarak step down by Friday, and other opposition figures have said his resignation is a condition for any negotiations with the government.
“It would have been better for him to say, ‘I love my people and I’m leaving,’ ” ElBaradei said. “Unfortunately, this will just extend the period of instability.”
There were indications, however, that Mubarak’s move might prove palatable to some critics.
Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, called the announcement “a very important step” that “should be considered carefully.”
Mubarak’s statement, promising “a peaceful transfer of power,” marked his most significant concession to a public uprising that he said had brought “difficult times” to Egypt.
Information from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.