President Obama on Friday demanded that the transition to democracy in Egypt begin “right now,” warning the government of embattled President Hosni Mubarak that the actions being taken against street protesters are “unacceptable” to the United States and to the rest of the world, which “is watching.”
The president’s comments came during a brief press conference following a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Obama said he was “encouraged by the restraint that was shown today.” But he wanted to send “a strong and unequivocal message," he said, that "attacks on reporters are unacceptable. Attacks on human-rights activists are unacceptable. Attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable.”
"Now, the details of this transition will be worked out by Egyptians, and my understanding is that some discussions have begun," Obama said. "But we are consulting widely within Egypt and with the international community to communicate our strong belief that a successful and orderly transition must be meaningful, negotiations should include a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition, and this transition must address the legitimate grievances of those who seek a better future."
The president said that in his two conversations with Mubarak, he has underscored, “The future of Egypt is going to be in the hands of Egyptians. It is not us who will determine that future.” But, he added, “I have also said that, in light of what's happened over the last two weeks, going back to the old ways is not going to work. Suppression is not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work. Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work.”
He stressed that “the only thing that will work is moving an orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, [and] representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people.”
Obama described Mubarak as both “proud” and “a patriot” and suggested that Mubarak's announcement that he will not run for another term as president was an important turning point and “psychological break” with 30 years of despotic rule. Now, Obama said, “the most important question for him to ask himself, for the Egyptian government to ask itself, as well as the opposition to ask itself is, how do we make that transition effective and lasting and legitimate?” He added that the U.S. role in any transition will be to “affirm the core principles” of American policy and not to dictate an outcome. Obama disclosed that talks on that transition have already begun in Cairo.
But the president warned Mubarak’s government that Washington will be watching its next steps. “If you end up having just gestures towards the opposition, but it leads to a continuing suppression of the opposition, that's not going to work. If you have the pretense of reform but not real reform, that's not going to be effective.”
Harper, who discussed the developing situation with Obama, said he agreed “fully” with the U.S. president on the allied response to the turmoil. The Egyptian crisis overshadowed what the two leaders had hoped would be the headline from their continental summit – the announcement of the first step toward more closely coordinating border security between the two countries.
The prime minister is under some fire back home from critics who fear that the agreement – which has yet to be fleshed out – will surrender some Canadian sovereignty to its giant neighbor to the south. “This declaration is not about sovereignty,” he insisted when pressed by a Canadian reporter. Harper added, “It is in Canada’s interests ... to make sure our borders are secure.” Canada and the United States face “security threats that are very similar,” he said.
Obama said he wants the two countries “working more closely to improve border security, with better screening, new technologies, and information-sharing among law enforcement, as well as [identification of] threats early.”
The two leaders are also “launching a new effort to get rid of outdated regulations that stifle trade and job creation,” Obama said. But he added that they they will look to “strike the right balance” to protect public health and safety while making border trade easier.