Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Australia: Obama says change in Egypt must begin "now"

World News Australia

article printed in its entirety

Egypt's transition must begin now: Obama

US President Barack Obama has challenged Egypt's embattled autocratic ruler to immediately begin the country's transition to new leadership, a signal that there should be no drawn-out goodbye.

Earlier on Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had announced he would not seek another term in office but also would not yield to growing demands to step down now.

After a huddle at the White House and a 30-minute telephone conversation with Mubarak, Obama went on television to respond.

In his brief statement at the White House on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning AEDT), Obama invoked Egypt's ancient and storied past in what appeared to be an appeal to Mubarak's desire to be remembered well in history as a powerful leader and peacemaker.

He said he had spoken to Mubarak to press his case.

"He recognises that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place," Obama said of Mubarak.

"Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people."

"Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation; the voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of the moments, this is one of those times," Obama said.

He added that the United States heard those voices demanding change as anti-government protests filled the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

Mubarak delivered his speech after hearing from a special envoy, former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, whom Obama dispatched to Cairo on Monday.

Wisner's message to Mubarak: The United States saw his tenure at an end, did not want him to stand for re-election in September and wanted him to prepare an orderly transition to real democracy.

"It is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," Obama said he had told Mubarak in the phone call.

That suggested Mubarak's concession was not enough, but Obama left the point dangling.

He was careful not to say that Mubarak should have left immediately, and he stressed that it was not up to the United States to pick Egypt's leaders.

"Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties," he said.

"It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And, it should result in a government that is not only grounded in democratic principles but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

Obama praised the "passion and dignity" of the protesters who have rallied for Mubarak's departure as an "inspiration" to people around the world, and he hailed the Egyptian military for its poise in handling the situation.

"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices," Obama said.

"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."

In a halfway concession to hundreds of thousands of protesters, Mubarak said in Egypt that he would serve out the rest of his term working to ensure a "peaceful transfer of power" and new rules on presidential elections.

His message that he would not immediately leave was rebuffed by many demonstrators in Cairo's main square.

Obama warned there would be "difficult days ahead" in Egypt as the situation develops. He appealed for calm.

Tuesday's developments signalled that after a week of balancing support for protesters and for America's close ally of three decades, the Obama administration had decided that long-term backing for the Egyptian president was no longer tenable.

They also coincided with a greater outreach to opposition figures, most notably opening talks with a possible Mubarak successor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat and chief of the UN nuclear watchdog.

Officials said that in his conversation with Mubarak, Wisner did not demand that the president step down immediately but rather accept that he was nearing the end of his three-decade grip on power and not try to extend it.

Wisner was instructed to use a "light touch" in conveying Obama's message, one official said.

Wisner and Mubarak are friends, and the officials said the two had a back-and-forth discussion in which each provided the other with his perspective on developments.

The officials said Obama was keenly aware of Mubarak's need to save face and make a graceful exit, acknowledging that the Egyptian leader has been a staunch ally and a major player in all Middle East peace efforts during the past 30 years.

The administration hopes that other Arab allies will appreciate that approach, the officials said.

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