Obama Tells Mubarak It's Time For Transition

After three decades of autocratic rule, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday he would not seek re-election in September. The Obama administration has been quietly urging Mubarak to step aside, and Obama spoke to the Egyptian leader by telephone Tuesday night.

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Now, after President Mubarak announced that he would not seek reelection, he spoke by phone with President Obama, whose administration had been, not so quietly, urging Mubarak to step aside..

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The phone call to Mubarak was said to be direct and frank. The Egyptian leader made it clear, giving up the presidency after almost 30 years in power is difficult, but President Obama was firm.

Mr. Obama said later, it's not for the U.S. to decide what happens in Egypt, but he said the status quo cannot go on.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: As protests in Egypt have gained strength, the administration has gradually turned up the heat on Mubarak. Last Friday, the White House warned the Egyptian military not to use force against the protestors, or else U.S. aid could be in jeopardy.

And yesterday, the State Department let it be known veteran diplomat Frank Wisner had carried a message to Mubarak from the administration, that his time was running short.

It was quite a turnaround from just a week earlier, when secretary of state Hillary Clinton had pronounced Egypt stable.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Vice President/Director of Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution): That is a dramatic shift in policy to keep pace with a dramatic unfolding of events in the streets of Egypt.

HORSLEY: That's Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, one of several foreign policy experts who were called to the White House to discuss the options for Egypt.

Yesterday, Mr. Obama huddled with his national security team for more than an hour in the situation room. That's where he watched Mubarak's announcement that he would not see another term. Indyk says it's doubtful, Mubarak has gone far enough.

Mr. INDYK: I fear that just as with everything that Mubarak has done in the last week, it will be too little too late.

HORSLEY: President Obama stressed in his phone call with Mubarak, that the political transition should not be prolonged, suggesting a handover of power in September may not be good enough. Mr. Obama said the U.S. would continue to oppose violence and to support the human rights of the protestors.

President OBAMA: The passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.

HORSLEY: Senior fellow, Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations says Mr. Obama struck the right notes last night. But Cook, who was in Egypt last week, warns: many people there are still suspicious of the U.S. for backing Mubarak all those years.

Mr. STEVEN COOK (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Those F16 over flights over Tahrir Square, the tear gas canisters with the Made in the USA label on it, these are the things that have made an impression on Egyptian people. But I do think it's important that at least there was an effort to try to get on the right side of this, rather than just continuing to support Mubarak at all costs.

HORSLEY: As demonstrations spread to other parts of the Arab world, the U.S. will face a continued tug-of-war between stable but autocratic regimes, and the uncertainty of political and economic reform. Cook says that uncertainty will take some getting used to. Many American policy leaders have never known an Egyptian leader other than Mubarak.

Mr. COOK: U.S.-Egypt relations aren't going to be the same, and no matter what happens, there's likely to be a more troublesome difficult relationship going forward.

HORSLEY: President Obama seemed to acknowledge that in his statement last night.

President OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: And, Mr. Obama said, the U.S. will remain a friend and partner in that effort.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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