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Obama Says Egyptian Government Failed to Give ‘Clear’ Message

Obama Says Egyptians Need Clear Statement on Changes
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama, expressing impatience with the pace of the transition to democracy in Egypt, said President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he would cede some powers failed to provide a “clear and unambiguous” statement that the needed changes are being made.

In a written statement issued hours after Mubarak delivered a televised address last night, Obama said the Egyptian people remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a transition to democracy.

“The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity,” Obama said.

The statement made no direct mention of Mubarak, who refused to yield to demands from protesters crowding central Cairo seeking his immediate ouster. Mubarak’s speech had the administration chasing to keep up with the pace of events in Egypt and limited its ability to influence the outcome, according to analysts.

Mubarak put the U.S. in 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 a position of either “backing down and basically becoming more quiet” or saying more publicly to Mubarak that he has to go, Clemons said.

Little Influence

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 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.

Time also may be running out for the U.S. to manage the outcome.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the protestors tomorrow, we don’t know what happens with the military,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “For the next 12 hours the best the U.S. government can do is to push all sides to avoid violence and hope for the best.”

U.S. Expectations

Standard & Poor’s 500 Index futures lost 0.3 percent as of 10:56 a.m. in Hong Kong while the dollar and oil rallied after Mubarak’s speech. Oil gained as much as 1.2 percent in New York and traded above $101 a barrel in London.

Statements made earlier in the day suggest the administration was expecting a more significant move by Mubarak, rather than an announcement he would delegate powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, and remain in office until elections scheduled for September.

“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 earlier in the day, before Mubarak spoke. “What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It’s a moment of transformation.”

At a hearing at the U.S. Capitol, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta told lawmakers in response to questions that he had seen news reports saying “there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening.” That would be a “significant” step in Egypt’s transition, he said.

Emergency Law

Panetta said later that the CIA had no confirmation that Mubarak would leave office and the public should not take his remarks as “insight that this in fact going to happen.”

Obama watched Mubarak’s speech aboard Air Force One as he was returning from the event in Michigan. Upon arrival at the White House he went directly into a meeting with his advisers.

When Mubarak made his first address responding to the protests on Feb 1, Obama went before television cameras to deliver his reaction. This time, he issued a statement.

While saying the future of Egypt must be determined by its citizens, Obama laid down benchmarks for the government: lifting the emergency law, “meaningful” negotiations with opposition groups, revising the Egyptian constitution and developing a road map to free and fair elections.

‘Egypt Has Changed’

“The voices of the Egyptian people must be heard,” Obama said in the statement. “Egypt has changed, and its future is in the hands of the people.”

He said the Egyptian government must explain the changes that were announced and spell out a step-by-step process that will lead to a representative government.

Alterman and Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, were among the analysts who said the administration may be best served by making few public statements at this point.

“They are having as much trouble as anyone else in following the hour-to-hour, day-to-day comings and goings of events there,” Haass said.

“What advice they’re giving they’re largely now giving in private,” he told reporters on a conference call today. “That’s exactly the way it should be.”

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