Obama calls for 'genuine' transition in Egypt

February 10, 2011

WASHINGTON — Declaring history in the making, President Barack Obama assured Egyptians on Thursday the U.S. will help its Middle Eastern ally shift from chaos to democracy — provided the government change is genuine. But Hosni Mubarak's refusal to quit sowed more doubts.

Obama met with national security aides into the evening at the White House.

Despite enormous speculation to the contrary, including by the U.S. CIA director, the Egyptian president did not announce he was stepping down in his late-night speech in Cairo. He did pledge to hand over power to his vice president, but tens of thousands of protesters in the city's central square reacted to that with angry contempt.

The long day's developments seemed to catch many by surprise. Before Mubarak's speech, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress there was "a strong likelihood" that the Egyptian leader was on the way out and could step down as early as Thursday night.

Mubarak stuck to a framework for reform that protesters have roundly rejected, concerned that it  will mean only cosmetic change. Egypt's military announced that it had stepped in to "safeguard the country" and assured protesters that Mubarak would meet their demands.

Earlier in the day, as anticipation grew by the hour, Obama notably said that what the United States wanted was transition to democracy in Egypt that was not just orderly but "genuine."

"What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold," Obama said at the start of an overshadowed economic event in Michigan. "It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."

The president said the protests were being fueled by young people who want their voices heard but that Egyptians of all ages were demanding change.

In keeping with a pattern that has held since the unrest began on Jan. 25, Obama was cautious in his words, with no guarantee of what Mubarak would say. Even earlier, the president had watched events unfold like much of America — on television — albeit aboard Air Force One.

"We're going to have to wait and see what's going on," Obama put it plainly when questioned by a reporter during his stop at a Michigan diner.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush, said Mubarak was directly referring to the United States Thursday when he said he would not be pushed out by foreign powers.

"He's daring them," said Rubin, deputy director at the Washington-based National Security Network. "The White House will have a harder time messaging now because he's called their bluff."

Mubarak remained under enormous pressure to relinquish power after nearly 30 years. Protesters are pushing for basic freedoms, economic improvements and the end of corruption.

Washington officials followed the unfolding drama in Cairo with hopeful expectation for a smooth transition — mixed with concern over the unpredictability of the developments.

"There is no question that what we are seeing happening in Egypt will have tremendous impact," Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee. "If it's done right, it will help us a great deal in trying to promote stability in that part of the world. If it happens wrong, it could create some serious problems for us and for the rest of the world."

The administration was also watching closely for developments that might affect U.S. aid to Egypt. A coup or other non-constitutional transfer of power could trigger a suspension in all non-humanitarian assistance. The U.S. is providing at least $1.5 billion annually to Egypt in military aid.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who appeared with Panetta before a House committee, said the terror syndicate al-Qaida and the Islamic hardline groups Hamas and Hezbollah were also paying close attention to the unfolding events in Egypt.

The Herald-Mail Articles