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Obama tells Mubarak: Transition must begin 'now'

Feb. 2, 2011 12:39 A.M. (Updated: Feb. 6, 2011 10:13 A.M.)
By Stephen Collinson and Lachlan Carmichael

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- President Barack Obama told Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak that he must begin to transition power "now," hinting his offer to leave after September elections may not go far enough.

Obama also made another subtle shift toward crowds massed in Cairo and other Egyptian cities after days of rage against Mubarak's rule, saying America had heard them, and they would certainly get the change they craved.

The US president spoke after prodding Mubarak into publicly admitting that his relentless era in charge of Egypt was coming to an end, in a message delivered privately in Cairo by veteran US diplomat Frank Wisner.

"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, minutes after calling the Egyptian leader.

"He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place," Obama continued, in remarks directed at multiple audiences, including Mubarak, protesters, the Egyptian army and the American public.

His comments came on another dizzying day of emergency diplomacy in Washington and unprecedented scenes of protest in Egypt, as a million people took to the streets demanding Mubarak leave power by Friday.

Obama's intervention, in a live televised address from the White House, will likely be seen by some analysts as an attempt to convince Mubarak to leave sooner than he has planned so far.

A US official said on condition of anonymity that Obama had a "direct and frank" 30-minute telephone call with Mubarak, after the Egyptian leader made his concession in a speech protesters immediately branded as insufficient.

Obama "said it was clear how much (Mubarak) loves his country, and how difficult this is for him. President Obama also explained to him that an orderly transition can't be prolonged -- it must begin now," the official said.

That approach seemed to indicate that Washington may not be satisfied with a transition of power consummated only after elections due in seven months.

Another official added: "the question is [not] whether he leaves now or leaves later, but our message simply was that you've got to recognize what your people are telling you."

Obama has been walking a fine line for days, torn between demands for democracy that resonate with America's own political DNA, and a leader who has ruled with an authoritarian hand yet been a crucial US ally for 30 years.

The president also appeared keen to guard against a descent into chaos in Egypt that could be sparked by a sudden revolution, amid fears here of a government hostile to US goals likely to spawn wider regional instability.

Pointedly, Obama, who made a soaring call for universal rights to be respected in his historic 2009 speech to Muslims in Cairo, also leaned closer than ever before to anti-Mubarak protesters.

"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," Obama said.

The US leader also spoke directly to Egypt's all-powerful military, a key center of power which may be pivotal in ushering Mubarak into history.

"I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism that it has shown while protecting the Egyptian people," Obama said.

"We've seen tanks covered with banners and soldiers and protesters embracing in the streets; and going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful."

Wisner, sent on a mission to Egypt by the State Department, earlier told the Egyptian leader it would be best if he did not seek a new term in the upcoming elections.

"What's clear is that this is a movement that is gaining momentum, it's not going to go away. And it's not likely to be enough," a US official said.

"The message was that his time in office was coming to an end.

"What's happened today shows that there's some recognition but the real question is will they [protesters] demand more, and it's entirely possible they will," the official added.

US Ambassador to Cairo Margaret Scobey earlier spoke to top Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei for the first time since he flew back to Egypt as public unrest left Mubarak clinging to power.

A US official said Scobey delivered a message to ElBaradei echoing that made by the Obama administration in public: Washington wants a political transition but will not seek to dictate Egypt's political future.

Washington meanwhile ordered the departure of all non-emergency US government staff from Egypt amid days of protests against Mubarak.

"The Department of State will continue to facilitate the evacuation of US citizens who require assistance," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in announcing the move.

He said the departure was ordered "in light of recent events."
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