President Barack Obama shared in the Egyptian people’s exhilaration in forcing Hosni Mubarak from power, while cautioning of “difficult days ahead” for the Mideast nation’s fledgling embrace of democracy.
“For Egypt, it was the moral force of non-violence -- not terrorism, not mindless killing -- but non-violence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more,” Obama said yesterday in remarks at the White House, hours after Mubarak resigned the presidency he had held for 30 years.
“This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied,” Obama said.
The departure of the 82-year-old Mubarak is the beginning, not the end, of the country’s transition, Obama said. “There will be difficult days ahead. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers and do so peacefully.”
Obama’s words echoed the language of the U.S. civil rights movement and of his own presidential campaign. An emotional high point of his 2008 campaign stump speech came when he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on the “arc” of the “moral universe.” The line is now inscribed on a carpet in the Oval Office.
After weeks in which the administration balanced support for democratic aspirations with a hesitancy to openly repudiate Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, Obama’s statement yesterday showed him clearly endorsing the Egyptian uprising.
Obama’s televised comments may amplify the “psychological impact” of the events in Egypt on the region’s leaders and people, said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and one of the regional experts the administration has consulted on Egypt.
“The poetry and the power of his words today should accentuate the sense that many leaders in the Middle East will likely now have: that the Americans are not going to rescue them if they ignore legitimate demands from their people for political reform,” Malinowski said. “To many people in the Middle East who are accustomed to what they see as unconditional backing for dictatorships in their region, that may be a bit of a revelation.”
Obama said the U.S. will provide whatever assistance is needed to keep Egypt’s transformation on the right track.
“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments,” Obama said. “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
Mubarak’s bow to the demands of protesters who crowded central Cairo for 18 days in what became a demand for his ouster relieves one challenge for the Obama administration and presents another in managing policy in the Mideast.
“The Egypt scene is as complex for us. The regional scene is more complex now that Mubarak has stepped down,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a policy research organization in Washington.
U.S. regional interests are at stake, with Israel concerned about being isolated, and allies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia anxious about discontent among their own citizens, Katulis said.
Robert Gibbs, in his final daily briefing as White House press secretary, said the U.S. believes “it’s important” that the next Egyptian government abide by the country’s peace treaty with Israel.
While U.S. influence over future events in Egypt is limited, the Obama administration must press for “change to be dynamic, responsive to the needs of democracy and human rights and economic justice,” said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria.
‘Peaceful and Orderly’
The U.S. will also have to urge that the transition “be done in a peaceful and orderly manner so that that this people’s revolution is not hijacked by radicals,” he said.
Djerejian said it’s unlikely the government will be taken over by extremists.
“The Egyptians will bring in the representative groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is a vibrant middle class and a liberal entrepreneurial class in Egypt,” he said.
Obama was informed during an Oval Office meeting of Mubarak’s decision to step down. He then went to an outer office to watch television coverage of the scene in Cairo for several minutes, Tommy Vietor, an administration spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Statements by Obama and other administration officials Feb. 10 indicated they had expected Mubarak to step aside sooner.
“We are witnessing history unfold. It’s a moment of transformation,” Obama had said before Mubarak addressed his country on Feb. 10 and said he was staying on.
Change in Plans
Instead, Mubarak had said he would cede some authority to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, and remain in office until elections scheduled for September. He also decried outside interference, a rebuke to the U.S.
Obama then expressed impatience in a written statement issued afterward that also called on the Egyptian leaders to explain their plan for a transition from Mubarak’s reign.
That all changed yesterday as Mubarak resigned after Egyptians renewed their demand that he leave.
The administration had been monitoring financial and oil markets on concern that the turmoil would spread to other nations in the region, including Gulf oil-producing states. Stocks rose and oil fell after Egyptian state television announced Mubarak was stepping down.