President Obama urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to speed up his “orderly transition” from power, urging the leader of the world’s largest Arab country to “begin now” the process by which he relinquishes power and ushers in democracy.
“We have borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country and a long-time partner of the United States,” Obama said in a televised statement. “The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments. This is one of those times.”
While allowing that "it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders," Obama nonetheless praised the country's military for its restraint in dealing with throngs of protesters and said that Mubarak had noted to him in a phone call tonight that the status quo "is not sustainable."
Mubarak had addressed the Egyptian public three hours earlier, grudgingly announcing that he would not stand for reelection in September after 30 years in power. But those Egyptians at the center of the protests, which grew to their largest extent today, seemed to say that Mubarak’s vision of an orderly transition—one that included holding office until September—was not enough.
Obama watched Mubarak speak this afternoon and before placing a call to the Egyptian president. For the second time in three days, they spoke for 30 minutes, a White House official said, emphasizing the length of the conversation as if to underscore how much remains unresolved. They have acknowledged that the mass of protesters are demanding more from Mubarak than the United States is willing to use its leverage to obtain, at least in the near-term. The White House insisted in public that it did not demand Mubarak’s ouster, but in private, they organized a wide-ranging campaign of pressure, using the United States' close ties to the Egyptian Army, former American diplomats with clout in Cairo, and the private nudging of other Arab leaders to restrict Mubarak’s choices.
Tuesday night, Obama said he told Mubarak that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” In doing so, he split the difference: He did not directly call for Mubarak to yield power now, but he made it clear that Mubarak should begin to devolve his authorities in the short term. Administration officials, most notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who deemed the Egyptian government "stable" on January 25, are now having to struggle to keep up with breaking events as a wave of anger that began last month with the ouster of Tunisia's government seems to be spreading east and threatening the region's autocratic regimes and longtime American allies.
Mubarak's announcement that he would not seek reelection has done nothing to quell the crowds in Cairo. Whether the Egyptian strongman can make it to the end of his term is another question. Obama tried to assure the demonstrators, and younger Egyptians in particular, that “[w]e hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and grandchildren.”