WASHINGTON – President Obama declared on Tuesday night that an “orderly transition” in Egypt “must begin now,” but he stopped short of demanding that President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately
Mr. Obama used his four-and-a-half minute speech from the Cross Hall of the White House to embrace the cause of the protestors in Egypt far more fully than he has at any previous moment since the uprising against Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year-rule began.
He praised the Egyptian military for refusing to fire on the protestors. And by declaring that Mr. Mubarak had to begin the process of transition immediately, he seemed to be signaling that the United States would not stand by if Mr. Mubarak tried to slow-walk the process, or manipulate its results.
But if he pushed Mr. Mubarak, he did not shove him. Mr. Obama said there would be “difficult days ahead,” a clear signal of recognition that the transition period could be messy.
Only a few hours before, Mr. Mubarak had declared he would not run for re-election, but planned to stay in office through September. Mr. Obama never discussed that ti****ble in his public response, and he did not declare exactly what steps he wants the Egyptian leader to take to start the process of transition.
But he made clear that the process started by the protestors could not be reversed. “We’ve born witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country,” Mr. Obama said, casting it as a natural successor to other moments of transition in a society that goes back thousands of years.
Still, Mr. Obama was clearly walking a fine line between a desire to end the standoff on the streets of Cairo and his determination not to be seen attempting to force out Egypt’s leader or manipulate the selection of his successor. That is something Mr. Obama said could only be done by the Egyptian people.
As a result, his carefully-worded call for peaceful transition seemed bound to disappoint the protesters in Tahir Square in Cairo, whose chants of “Leave, leave, leave” resounded over television monitors in the White House Situation Room as Mr. Obama met with his advisers on Tuesday afternoon.
It was in that room that Mr. Obama watched Mr. Mubarak’s declaration that he would wait nearly eight months before he left the presidential palace. A few hours later, Mr. Obama called Mr. Mubarak, but the White House disclosed little about their 30-minute conversation.
Mr. Obama’s comments fell short of what Egypt’s most prominent voice of opposition, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureaute, said was necessary. Shortly after Mr. Mubarak said he would not run for re-election but also would not give in to the protestors, Mr. ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on television: “Whoever gave him that advice gave him absolutely the wrong advice. He has got to leave.”