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Obama urges Egypt to go into transition process 'right now'

President Obama, taking his first questions from the press on Egypt, stops short of urging President Hosni Mubarak to step down but says the Cairo government must undertake 'an orderly transition process, right now.'

February 04, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times

President Obama on Friday stopped short of urging President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power but made it clear that suppression and violence would not be effective in dealing with Egypt's ongoing protests.

"In light of what's happened, going back to the old ways is not going to work," Obama said at a televised news conference. "Suppression is not going to work, violence is not going to work.

"The only thing that is going to work is moving to an orderly transition process, right now," the president said, adding that change must also be responsive to the grievances of people.

Obama made his comments on the 11th day of anti-government demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. The president's public comments were also a sign of the hardening of the U.S. position against Mubarak.

Obama spoke at a joint appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was visiting the White House. Though Obama has spoken on the Egypt situation before, Friday was the first time he had personally taken a question from the press on Egypt.

Obama was courteous to Mubarak but stressed that the man who has ruled Egypt for almost 30 years needed to listen to those around him and find an orderly pathway to change.

"I believe he cares about his country," Obama said. Mubarak is a proud man, but "is also a patriot," he said.

Obama praised Mubarak for announcing he would not seek reelection in September, but said more was needed. The key question for Mubarak is "How do I leave a legacy behind?" Obama said. "How do I get through this transformative period? I hope he makes the right decision."

The Obama administration has been working behind the scenes to find some compromise. The U.S. military has contacted its counterparts in Egypt and Vice President Joe Biden has spoken to his counterpart, newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman. One plan that has been floated is for Suleiman, backed by the military, to serve as head of a caretaker government until after the September elections.

On Friday, Obama laid out a three-point program on Egypt that echoed his administration's stance in recent days.

"First, we continue to be crystal-clear that we oppose violence as a response to this crisis," Obama said. He called for a strong and unequivocal message that attacks on reporters, human rights activists and peaceful protesters are unacceptable.

The president also insisted that Egyptians needed to resolve the current crisis themselves. "The future of Egypt will be determined by its people," Obama said, adding that the transition process should begin now.

Obama said the United States backed negotiations among a broad representation of opponents and must address the legitimate concerns of the Egyptian people.

"This moment of turmoil can turn into a moment of opportunity," Obama said and pledged that the Egyptian people would find a "strong friend and partner in America."

Originally, the Obama administration said it was neutral on the demonstrations and insisted that it was up to the Egyptian people to choose what form of government they wanted. That was a concession to the strategic importance of Egypt as a key U.S. ally in the region and the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

But as the protests continued — and often were marred by violence — the United States toughened its position, urging an immediate "orderly transition" to democratic reforms. Mubarak responded that he would not seek reelection in September, a concession that the protesters said was insufficient.

In recent days, the United States has condemned the violence in the square, which demonstrators argued had been orchestrated by pro-government thugs. Egyptian officials have said they will investigate and will also look at the violence against journalists.

The White House is working behind the scenes to push Mubarak from power ahead of September elections, in which he's pledged not to run again after a 30-year autocratic reign.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

Twitter.com/LATimesmuskal

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