WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak should do the statesmanlike thing and make a quick handoff to a more representative government.
Translation: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Obama said a new era must begin now, an unsubtle message to Mubarak that he should not cling to power until elections in September.
“The key question he should be asking himself is, ‘How do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period?’” Obama said Friday.
Obama, in office for two years, gave the 82-year-old Egyptian president some words of advice after 30 years of iron rule. The game’s up, Obama said, using language only slightly less direct. It’s time to leave.
“He is proud, but he is also a patriot,” Obama said after a White House meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“What I’ve suggested to him is that he needs to consult with those who are around him in his government,” Obama said. “He needs to listen to what is being voiced by the Egyptian people and make a judgment about a pathway forward that is orderly but that is meaningful and serious.”
Obama’s attempt to give his most important Arab ally a firm shove off the world stage marked a full turn from Obama’s cautious appeals for calm and restraint two weeks ago.
The United States has relied on Mubarak for decades and shored up his authoritarian regime with billions in military aid. He was considered, with the Saudi king, the most influential friend Washington could have in a volatile part of the world and rewarded with military and other aid worth more than $1 billion annually.
The U.S. would have preferred not to see Mubarak thrown over the side immediately. The realization became clear this week that the crisis could end no other way, and U.S. spokesmen began to talk about “transition” to a post-Mubarak era.
Speaking on what Egyptian street protesters called deadline day for Mubarak to step aside, Obama never actually said Mubarak should quit immediately. He clearly hopes he won’t have to.
Mubarak’s main concession to the demonstrators calling for his head is a promise not to run again in elections set for September. He vowed not to be driven from his homeland and said he will die on Egyptian soil.
That wasn’t good enough for demonstrators demanding that Mubarak get out immediately, and Obama knew it.
“He has already said that he is not going to run for re-election,” Obama said, with a pause for effect. His tone was one part law professor, one part therapist.
“Having made that psychological break, that decision that he will not be running again, I think the most important for him to ask himself, for the Egyptian government to ask itself, as well as the opposition to ask itself is, How do we make that transition effective and lasting and legitimate?”
That might be as blunt as a baseball bat to American ears, but there’s no guarantee Mubarak and his inner circle will hear it the same way.
Khairi Abaza, a former Egyptian opposition politician now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, welcomed Obama’s remarks and said he interpreted them as a direct call for Mubarak to step aside now.
“To me it was clear,” Abaza said. “But the regime in Egypt is playing dumb. It hasn’t reacted at all. It’s like someone who can’t take a hint.”
A rally Friday by nearly 100,000 protesters in Cairo and behind-the-scenes diplomacy from the Obama administration piled more pressure on Mubarak to make a swift exit and allow a temporary government to embark on an immediate path toward democracy.
Two days of wild clashes between protesters and regime supporters that killed 11 people this week seemed to have pushed the United States to the conclusion that an Egypt with Mubarak at the helm is potentially more unstable than one without him.
Obama did not directly discuss the furious maneuvering to ease Mubarak out. Under one scenario, a military-backed provisional government would govern until the first elections in decades that would not include Mubarak. The United States has hinted broadly that it would like to see the presidential election moved up from September.
Any of that would have been unthinkable before a stunning popular revolt upended the status quo this week in a polite, tourist-friendly police state where Mubarak’s cronies got richer as much of the country got poorer. Obama alluded to the backroom discussions while being careful to say that the decision will be Egypt’s and not its largest foreign patron and longtime ally.
“Going back to the old ways is not going to work,” Obama said.
“If you end up having just gestures towards the opposition but it leads to a continuing suppression of the opposition, that is not going to work. If you have the pretense of reform but not real reform that is not going to be effective.”
That leaves Obama a little room to bring down the hammer later, if he must.
Steve Grand, who heads the Brookings Institution’s work on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, said he understood the president’s hesitation in delivering the final verdict on Mubarak’s presidency. But he said Obama must be running out of patience.
“He could say, ‘It’s time for Mubarak to go,’ and it is just about time that he says that,” Grand said. “At this point, he should be on the side of change. The people of Egypt have spoken loud and clearly, and Mubarak has shown his true colors in these last days.”
Obama has spoken to Mubarak twice as the crisis unfolded. He will probably speak to him at least once more, to say goodbye.
Here’s how he left it for now:
“My hope is he will end up making the right decision.”
Anne Gearan covers U.S. national security policy for The Associated Press.