President Barack Obama is prodding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to quickly loosen his grip on power, sternly telling the world that the longtime leader's transition from the presidency "must begin now."
Obama spoke at the White House not long after Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in the volatile Middle East, announced Tuesday evening that he would not seek re-election in balloting now set for September. But Mubarak said he would stay in office until then to oversee a political changeover from his authoritarian 30-year reign to an uncertain future.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to address U.S. diplomats Wednesday at the State Department, where she was expected to discuss the evolving situation in Egypt.
Mubarak's concession not to seek office again, until recently nearly unthinkable, was angrily rejected by throngs of protesters in Cairo who are fed up with poverty and corruption and want Mubarak to step down immediately. They have vowed to stay in the streets until he does.
|A man drinks tea as he observes the continuing demonstration from a ninth floor balcony overlooking Tahrir square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011.|
It also did not appear to satisfy Obama. After days of scrambling in the White House over how to react to the enormous and unanticipated protest movement enveloping America's top Arab ally, the president came down unmistakably on the side of the demonstrators, though he stopped well short of echoing their demand for Mubarak's immediate resignation.
After speaking to Mubarak on the phone for half an hour, the president delivered brief remarks in which he offered high praise for the protesters and the Egyptian army, which apparently has sided with the protesters. But Obama did not welcome or even directly mention Mubarak's announcement that he would not stand for re-election.
"It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that," Obama said. "What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."
Obama had no kind words for Mubarak, though his Egypt has been critical to securing America's interests in the Middle East, including access to oil transport through the Suez Canal and a peace treaty with Israel under Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
"He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place," Obama said, before declaring that that change must begin immediately, include opposition parties and "lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that's not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
An administration official said Obama delivered the same message to Mubarak in their "direct and frank" phone call. Obama "said it was clear how much he loves his country, and how difficult this is for him. President Obama also explained to him that an orderly transition can't be prolonged — it must begin now," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
Behind the scenes, the White House had attempted to nudge Mubarak to the exits over the past 48 hours, dispatching former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner as a special envoy to deliver a message to him: The U.S. saw Mubarak's tenure at an end, didn't want him to seek re-election and wanted him to prepare an orderly transition to real democracy. But when he addressed the public Tuesday, Mubarak did not offer the inclusive transition the U.S. seeks, instead saying that he himself would carry out the transfer of power.
That left little question that the protests would continue, and with them the maneuvering between Washington, Cairo and other capitals over the way forward.
"There will be difficult days ahead. Many questions about Egypt's future remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt will find those answers," Obama said, appealing to the army, a well-respected institution in Egypt, to continue to allow peaceful protests to go forward.
"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices," Obama said. "I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future." He said they've shown "passion and dignity" that's "been an inspiration to people around the world."
Tuesday's developments made clear the administration's determination that long-term backing for the Egyptian president was no longer tenable.
They also coincided with a greater outreach to opposition figures, most notably opening talks with a possible Mubarak successor, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat and chief of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. Yet there was great concern that Mubarak's exit, whether quick or drawn-out, could result in a power vacuum filled by Islamist groups or others hostile to Israel and unfriendly to U.S. interests.
Officials said that in his conversation with Mubarak, Wisner did not demand that the president step down immediately but rather accept that he was nearing the end of his three-decade grip on power and should not try to extend it. The officials said Obama was keenly aware of Mubarak's need to save face and make a graceful exit, acknowledging that the Egyptian leader has been a staunch ally and a major player in all Middle East peace efforts over the past 30 years. The administration hopes that other Arab allies will appreciate that approach, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the record.
Meanwhile, the escalating anti-government protests led the State Department to order non-essential American personnel and their families to leave the country.
The department said it had flown about 1,600 Americans out of Egypt since Monday, and hundreds more were expected to be evacuated in coming days. It said Americans were struggling to reach Cairo's airport because roads were closed as a result of demonstrations.