President Barack Obama told Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday an orderly transition of power in Egypt "must begin now" in remarks critical of the Egyptian leader's plan to stay in office six more months.
Obama spoke to Mubarak for a half hour by telephone after the long-time US ally announced plans to step down in September and not seek re-election in the face of mass protests in Egyptian cities against his 30-year rule.
"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 said.
A senior administration official said Obama's conversation with Mubarak was frank and direct and left no doubt that "the time for transition is now, it can't be put off."
"He said it was clear how much he (Mubarak) loves his country, and how difficult this is for him. President Obama explained to him that an orderly transition can't be prolonged, it must begin now," the official said.
Obama's comments were the clearest signal to date that Washington believes Mubarak might have to transition out of power sooner, rather than later.
While Washington doubted Mubarak's announcement would satisfy protesters, officials were reluctant to press openly for his resignation to avoid undermining other allies in the region who might face similar uprisings.
"WE HEAR YOUR VOICES"
Obama to a large extent sided the United States with the protesters calling for democratic, social and economic reforms in Egypt, a long-time US ally in the region and the most populous Arab nation.
"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We 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 your grandchildren," he said.
Given the fluidity of events, Obama's challenge was to avoid alienating whoever eventually rises to power in Egypt, given its role in Middle East peacemaking and its control over the strategic oil shipping routes through the Suez Canal.
It was far from clear that the path to the transfer of power that Mubarak laid out would satisfy the hundreds of thousands of protesters who had gathered across Egypt earlier in the day to call on him step down immediately.
While Obama insisted "it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders," Mubarak's announcement did follow what appeared to have been a nudge from the United States.
After days of pressing Mubarak to address the grievances of his people, Obama sent an envoy to privately urge the Egyptian president on Tuesday to prepare for a transition of power.
Hours later, Obama and his advisers watched a recorded speech by Mubarak in which he said he would use the rest of his term to take steps to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
Mubarak, Obama said, "recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people."
Analysts doubted Mubarak's plan.
"It won't work. This just really won't work," Elliot Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser, told CNN.
"I can't see anybody in Tahrir Square accepting that he will be president for eight more months and that he would, after 30 years, be trusted to be the man in charge of the democratic transition. Why would anyone believe that?"
Former US ambassador Frank Wisner met with Mubarak earlier and delivered a message about the need to prepare for an orderly transition, according to US officials.
Critics have accused the US administration of being slow to grasp the scale of upheaval in Egypt after similar protests toppled nearby Tunisia's longtime president on Jan 14.
The Obama administration reached out on Tuesday, not only to Mubarak, but to other key players on both sides of the crisis. The US ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, spoke to Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition figure who has seen rising support from a broad swath of Egyptian groups.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke with Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's defense minister. The Pentagon declined to give details about the call.
Oil prices jumped above $102 per barrel on Tuesday amid concern about port disruptions in Egypt.
ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, returned to Egypt last week and has since seen growing support from opposition groups, including the banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians, intellectuals and others.
Some US lawmakers also reacted with skepticism to Mubarak's announcement. The US senator who oversees foreign aid said Mubarak had no credibility to oversee Egypt's transition, and he renewed a threat to withhold aid from Egypt if it necessary to push for democracy there.
"President Mubarak's decision to stand down from future leadership of the government is welcome, but his continued role in Egypt's transition is unrealistic," said Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that approves US foreign aid.
"We (the United States) should do what we can to support a transition to democracy including, if it becomes necessary, withholding aid to the government," Leahy, a Democrat, said.