President Obama, clearly frustrated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's intention to retain his hold on power until elections later this year, said Tuesday evening that he has told Mubarak that a transition to representative government "must begin now."
In brief remarks at the White House, Obama made no mention of Mubarak's announcement that he had decided not to stand for reelection. Instead, Obama said he had told the Egyptian president in a telephone call that this was a "moment of transformation" in Egypt and that "the status quo is not sustainable."
Obama's message appeared carefully calibrated to avoid publicly calling for Mubarak to stand down, while making clear he should stand aside. Administration officials say they are seeking a transitional government, with or without Mubarak as its titular head, formed by representative reform leaders and backed by the Egyptian army that will address legitimate grievances, restore stability and plan for a free election. "The key part of the statement was 'now,' " an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Obama's message to Mubarak had been conveyed earlier in the day by special envoy Frank G. Wisner during a meeting in Cairo.
While Wisner said it would be useful if Mubarak made it clear that he had no plans to run in the scheduled September election, officials said, the bulk of the meeting was spent urging Mubarak to turn over control far sooner. While Mubarak appeared to understand the first part of the message, it was not clear to the White House until his speech was broadcast that he had dismissed the second part.
"All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people," Obama said. It was "not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders," he said. But "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."
Obama was effusive in his praise for the Egyptian military, which did not interfere in protests Tuesday that were the largest yet in a week of massive demonstrations in Cairo and other cities. He spoke of "the sense of community in the streets" and the "mothers and fathers embracing soldiers."
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post