Mubarak Vows He Won't Seek Re-Election, But Obama Calls For 'Peaceful Transition Now'
by SkeeterVT, Wed Feb 02, 2011 at 05:44:01 AM EST
82-Year-Old Egyptian President, in TV Speech to Nation, Declares He Won't Run for a Sixth Term After 30 Years in Power, But Protesters Vow They Won't Give Up Until He Resigns -- and Obama Makes Clear That 'Orderly Transition' to New Government 'Must Begin Now'
(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Wednesday, February 2, 2011)
WEDNESDAY NEWS EXTRA
By JIM LOBE
WASHINGTON -- Hours after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak vowed to stay in place until September's elections, the Obama administration sent its strongest signal yet that the aging autocrat and one-time staunch U.S. ally must relinquish his hold on power sooner rather than later.
"I believe that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," President Obama declared at a White House press conference Tuesday night, following the eighth day of mass protests across Egypt.
"The process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties," he said. "It should 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."
"After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak," Obama said. "He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place."
BIG QUESTION REMAINS: WHO WOULD TAKE OVER FROM MUBARAK -- AND HOW?
However, the form and depth of that change remain uncertain. Washington is clearly concerned that Mubarak's pledge not to run for re-election –- the most important concession he offered to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who again took to the streets in Cairo and other cities Tuesday –- will prove too little too late for an increasingly restive public.
Officials here were telling reporters on background as it became known Tuesday afternoon that Mubarak had no intention of resigning that they were disappointed that he had not heeded increasingly strong -- if still gentle -- hints by the administration since last Friday that he should bow out now, or very soon.
"People are sending a clear message it is time for Mubarak to step aside," CNN quoted one unnamed official as saying just before the 82-year-old president's appearance.
U.S. SENDS SPECIAL ENVOY TO URGE MUBARAK TO STEP DOWN
Indeed, Washington had sent a special envoy, Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt who has enjoyed a close relationship with Mubarak, to Cairo Sunday to urge him in that direction. Wisner, who returned home Tuesday, met with the Egyptian president but was reportedly told by him that he would not leave office before the end of his term in October.
"I think they must be surprised and disappointed by how stubborn [Mubarak] is," said one Egypt expert who attended a White House meeting Monday with senior national security staff. "The message we got was in the meeting was Mubarak's staying on was not going to be helpful to the kind of 'orderly transition' they're calling for."
While no official was willing to go on the record immediately after Mubarak's televised midnight statement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who has often acted on behalf the administration's behalf, tried to put the best gloss on the situation.
"This was an important announcement by President Mubarak to bring his presidency to an end and pledge that free and fair elections will be held," Kerry said in a written statement sent to reporters. "I believe that President Mubarak should now work with the military and civil society to establish an interim caretaker government."
"It remains to be seen whether this is enough to satisfy the demands of the Egyptian people for change," he added, expressing the big question that is official Washington and informed analysts are asking at the moment.
MUBARAK BALKS AT NAMING INTERIM GOVERNMENT
On that question, however, there is considerable doubt here.
"The government of Egypt has historically said nice things about its intentions to reform with little follow-through," said Joel Rubin, chief operating officer of the National Security Network, whose served for several years as a U.S. diplomat in Egypt.
"This is a step in the right direction, but actions are what needs to be seen, and immediately. If there's nothing tomorrow that shows he's serious about reform, it's going to require additional pressure, and, frankly, there will still the question whether the kind of reforms that are necessary can be done with Mubarak as president."
While Mubarak pledged not to seek re-election and oversee free elections, he did not indicate that he was prepared to appoint a new caretaker government -- as suggested by Obama and Kerry -- that might include representatives of the opposition, such as the new coalition headed by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.
MUBARAK SPEECH FAILS TO STEM PROTESTERS' ANGER; FEARS OF RADICALIZATION MOUNT
The initial reaction to Mubarak's statement among demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square was clearly negative, as the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered there throughout the day chanted "Leave, leave!"
A subsequent attack by baton-wielding mobs chanting in support of the president on demonstrators in Alexandria was considered a particularly ominous sign that the eight-day-old political crisis could be headed toward serious violence, despite the army's apparently successful efforts to separate the two sides.
"Chaos will reign in Egypt unless Mubarak leaves the country and, from an American standpoint, this will empower more radical elements in society to rally against Mubarak," worried Michael Rubin, a Mideast specialist at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, who also noted that Tuesday marked the 32nd anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return to Iran from exile in France, a key event in moving Tehran from a staunch U.S. ally under the Shah to its regional nemesis for more than 30 years.
"Most people making dark allusions to Iran [with respect to the current crisis in Egypt] forget that more than nine months passed between Khomeini's return and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy," he noted. "The question then becomes, what grievances can the Muslim Brotherhood or other anti- Western forces manufacture in those nine months to try to appeal beyond their natural constituency of perhaps 25 percent?"
Indeed, the biggest concern within and outside the administration is that Mubarak's refusal to resign –- particularly if it is coupled with a violent crackdown by the regime's security forces –- will strengthen Islamist elements, including the Brotherhood which has so far declined to play a prominent role in the protests.
"In an ideal world, it would be good if Mubarak could remain as head of a caretaker government and allow for an extended period of preparation for a truly free and fair election [because] you can't just stand up workable parties and a free media overnight, and figuring out how to create proper democratic institutions takes some time," according to Stephen Walt, who teaches international relations at Harvard University.
"The problem is that nobody in Egypt would trust Mubarak not have his thumb on the scale. So the demonstrators won't be mollified a bit by this speech, for good and obvious reasons," he added.
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Special Report Copyright 2011, Inter-Press Service. Republished under Creative Commons License 3.0.
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