Obama to Mubarak: Egypt transition 'must begin now'

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — With Egypt's major cities flooded by protesters Tuesday demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Barack Obama took another major step away from the U.S.'s strongest Arab ally, telling him that an orderly transition to a new regime "must begin now."

All but dismissing Mubarak's announcement he'd 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 in the U.S., Obama said that he'd told Mubarak in a 30-minute telephone conversation that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now."

Mubarak, 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 further identified, described the phone conversation as "direct and frank."

Mubarak 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 impact 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, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had added another condition that the administration hasn't publicly acknowledged 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.

Obama barely mentioned Mubarak's public statement in his remarks.

U.S. officials privately questioned whether Mubarak's concession would placate a swelling protest movement.

Earlier Tuesday, Obama's envoy, former U.S. diplomat Frank Wisner, 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. He has gone through a process, where 'Okay, 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," the senior official said.

"He has moved, and yet it is unclear if this will be enough to allow him to remain through September," the official said. "It's clear that the movement on the streets is growing in size. It's not going away."

A second U.S. official said: "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 quickly reached, 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 U.S., 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'll be satisfied with nothing less than his departure.

While Mubarak seems to believe he can manage the transition and leave office with dignity, support for him appeared to be eroding Tuesday, not just at the White House, but on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals.

In Turkey, a fellow Muslim-majority nation whose influence in the region is on the upswing, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan urged Mubarak to heed the will of his people.

"Mr. Hosni Mubarak: I want to make a very sincere recommendation, a very candid warning . . . All of us will die and will be questioned over what we left behind," Erdogan said in a speech in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

"Listen to the shouting of the people, the extremely humane demands," he said. "Without hesitation, satisfy the people's desire for change."

In Congress, some senior U.S. lawmakers also shifted their tone from suggesting Mubarak should heed the protesters and embrace reform to suggesting he should exit soon.

"I believe that President Mubarak should now work with the military and civil society to establish an interim caretaker government," said Kerry said. "It remains to be seen whether this is enough to satisfy the demands of the Egyptian people for change."

"Much work remains to be done to turn this auspicious moment into lasting peace and prosperity. Egyptians must now prepare for elections and achieve a peaceful transition of power. The military must continue to show the restraint it has so admirably exercised these past days. And opposition leaders must come together to develop a process that will ensure that all of Egypt's voices are heard."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that "for 30 years, this country has pursued a relationship with the Mubarak government that's been beneficial in terms of security. . . . Mubarak has been a moderating influence. Those days are coming to an end. His presence is no longer a moderating influence."

But for Mubarak, the biggest blow no doubt was Obama's message, coming as it did from a U.S. government that's backed him for three decades.

Obama administration officials declined to disclose further details of the meeting between Mubarak and Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt the State Department asked to go to Cairo.

In another signal to Mubarak, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey talked Tuesday with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear watchdog who's emerged as a spokesman for the opposition clamoring for an end to Mubarak's 30-year-rule, the State Department said.

It was believed to be the first contact between a senior U.S. official and ElBaradei since Egypt's political crisis erupted on Jan. 25.

Wisner, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991, developed a very close relationship with Mubarak and other top Egyptian government officials, said Daniel Kurtzer, who later served in the same post.

That allowed him to carry all kinds of messages, "including messages Mubarak didn't necessarily want to hear," said Kurtzer, now a Princeton University professor.

(Margaret Talev and David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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