From various news accounts, it is clear that the White House, including some of its top staff members, worked with President Obama to maintain steady pressure on Mubarak to resign, on the Egyptian army to deliver on the demands of protesters. They did so, despite enormous pressure on the US government to slow down or halt its support for the protesters, pressure that came primarily from Israel and Saudi Arabia. And at one point, at least, Obama got angry at some of those within the administration who weren’t following the White House lead.
It’s also clear that Obama, in a one on one conversation by telephone with Mubarak on February 1, told the Egyptian president nearly point blank to resign, and Mubarak refused. Obama told Mubarak: “It is time to present to the people of Egypt it’s next government.” Mubarak replied: “Let’s talk in the next three or four days.”
Mixed messages aside—including the off-message declaration by Frank Wisner, the US envoy sent to Cairo during the crisis, that Mubarak should remain in power—the White House executed a nuanced and carefully balanced series of statements designed to encourage the fall of Mubarak and begin Egypt on a course toward democratic change. That course, needless to say, is incomplete, although the military government’s decisions to suspend the constitution, dissolve the parliament, establish a transitional civilian government and call for a six-month transition to elections is a good start. Tahrir Square, on Monday morning, has been cleared, according to news reports from Cairo, and the generals are running the regime.
What follows is an account of Obama’s statements on Egypt from January 28 through February 11.
In his first statement on Egypt, on January 28, President Obama warned the Egyptian authorities against using violence against protesters, called for an end to Egypt’s shutdown of the Internet, noted that he’d spoken with President Mubarak, and demanded “concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people.” Some excerpts:
“I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere. I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the twenty-first century…. This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise…
“In the absence of these reforms, grievances have built up over time. When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise….
“What’s needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people: a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens, and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people.”
On Tuesday, February 1, Obama reiterated his opposition to violence and demanded that change start immediately (“now”). For the first time, he commended the military for its “professionalism and patience,” after the military had declared that it would not use force against protesters, a decision that was considered the turning point in the Egyptian uprising. And Obama demanded “change,” strongly implying—but not saying so explicitly, that by “change” he meant the resignation of Mubarak. In the same speech, Obama made clear that it was Egypt, not the United States, which would decide Egypt’s future. Some excerpts:
“I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. We’ve seen tanks covered with banners, and soldiers and protesters embracing in the streets. And going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful….
“We have spoken out on behalf of the need for change. After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people. Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.
“It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear—and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak—is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.
“To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren.”
The following day, when asked what the president meant by “now,” and when the president expected the change to start, the White House press secretary said simply, “Now means yesterday.”
Two days later, during a joint appearance with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, Obama said for the first time that the government of Egypt must negotiate the future with “a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition.” Excerpt:
“The details of this transition will be worked by Egyptians. And my understanding is that some discussions have begun. But we are consulting widely within Egypt and with the international community to communicate our strong belief that a successful and orderly transition must be meaningful. Negotiations should include a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition, and this transition must address the legitimate grievances of those who seek a better future.”
On February 11, following Mubarak’s resignation, Obama used emotional language to back the revolt, comparing its organizers to King and Gandhi, warning the military to ensure that the transition “bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table,” lift the emergency law, and guarantee elections. He emphasized the peaceful and inclousive nature of the revolution, saying, “We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like…. We saw people of faith praying together and chanting—‘Muslims, Christians, We are one.’” Some excerpts:
“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.
“By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change. But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks. For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.
“The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table. For the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverance that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change….
“And above all, we saw a new generation emerge—a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days…that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.
“This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied….
“The word ‘Tahrir’ means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore it will remind us of the Egyptian people—of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world.”