President Barack Obama met with his national security advisers as events in Egypt reached a new crisis point after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak defied calls from protesters to immediately step down.
Obama watched Mubarak’s speech to Egyptians while returning from a trip to Michigan on Air Force One. He made no comments upon his arrival at the White House, where he headed into a meeting on the latest developments. He is likely to release a statement later today.
Before Mubarak spoke, Obama said the U.S. will do everything possible to promote an orderly transition of power in Egypt.
“We are following today’s events in Egypt very closely, and we’ll have more to say as this plays out,” Obama said in Michigan. “What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It’s a moment of transformation.”
Mubarak, 82, said in a nationally televised address that he is delegating powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, and would remain in office until elections scheduled for September. Crowds watching his speech in Tahrir Square responded to his speech with cries of “down with Mubarak.”
Mubarak’s stance has put the U.S. into an “enormous bind,” said Steven Clemons, an analyst at the Washington-based research organization New America Foundation who has been meeting with National Security Council officials.
“The administration is forced into this position of either backing down and basically becoming more quiet,” he said, “Or is this the point which Obama finally says more publicly, you have to go, you have to leave?”
Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator and State Department official and now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the administration has little influence over the evolving situation in Egypt at this point and further prodding of Mubarak without results may end up making the U.S. look weak.
“The more we comment on it, the more we convince people we’re somehow capable of managing this or what we say or don’t say counts right now, the weaker we look,” Miller said. “If the situation moves from phone calls to the streets, which is where it appears to be going, we’ll have even less influence.”
Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential elections, called Mubarak’s speech “unfortunate and troubling.”
“The voices of the Egyptian people are growing louder and more unified,” McCain said in a statement. “I fully support the peaceful aspirations of the Egyptian people, and I am very concerned that every day their demands go unmet, the possibility only grows that this hopeful call for change could be exploited by extremist or violent elements.”
The U.S. priority continues to be an “orderly transition” in Egypt leading to free and fair elections, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier today. Until “irreversible change comes” in Egypt, the crowds of protesters will continue to expand, Gibbs said.
In his remarks at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Obama said the demonstrations in Egypt are being driven by a new generation of its citizens.
“We want those young people and we want all Egyptians to know America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt,” Obama said.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Egypt’s cities since Jan. 25 to demand Mubarak’s exit. The demonstrations have intensified since Mubarak last week said he wouldn’t step down until September’s presidential election, a statement he reaffirmed today.
The protests, inspired by the popular revolt that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, sparked concern that contagion would grip a region that holds more than 50 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.
Mubarak’s announcement came after the army’s top military body gathered in Cairo today to “safeguard the interests” of the nation, sparking speculation about a military takeover. Former United Nations nuclear agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now an opposition leader, said on Twitter that the army should “intervene immediately to save Egypt.”
The Obama administration has been relying on close contacts between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries to contain violence in the country and help accelerate a transition.