Mubarak Says He Won't Run for President Again; Obama Says Transition "Must Begin Now"

Tuesday, 01 February 2011 17:37 By Mark Landler and David D Kirkpatrick, Truthout | name.

Mubarak Says He Won

Cairo - President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would not run for another term in elections scheduled for the fall, appearing on state television to promise an orderly transition but saying he would serve out his term. In comments translated by CNN, he swore that he would never leave Egypt but would “die on its soil.”

Television cameras showed the vast crowds gathered in Tahrir Square in central Cairo roaring, but not necessarily in approval. The protesters have made the president’s immediate and unconditional resignation a bedrock demand of their movement, and it did not appear that the concession mollified them. Reports said that thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square chanted "Leave! Leave!" after the speech.

Mr. Mubarak’s announcement came after President Obama urged him not to run, effectively withdrawing America’s support for its closest Arab ally, according to American diplomats in Cairo and Washington.

The message was delivered by Frank G. Wisner, a seasoned envoy with deep ties to Egypt, the American diplomats said. Mr. Wisner’s message, they said, was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but rather firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader.

This back channel message, authorized directly by Mr. Obama, appeared to tip the administration beyond the delicate balancing act it has performed in the last week — resisting calls for Mr. Mubarak to step down, even as it has called for an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt.

In remarks after Mr. Mubarak’s announcement, Mr. Obama said he spoke directly to the Egyptian leader. “He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said. The president said he told Mr. Mubarak an orderly transition ”must begin now” and “include opposition parties.” And to the young people protesting the government, Mr. Obama said, “We hear your voices.”

It was not clear whether the administration favored Mr. Mubarak’s turning over the reins to a transitional government, composed of leaders of the opposition movement and perhaps under the leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei, or to a caretaker government led by members of the existing government, including the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.

The decision to nudge Mr. Mubarak in the direction of leaving is a critical step for the United States in defining its dealings not just with its most critical ally in the Arab world, but also with the rising swell of popular anger on the streets of Cairo and in countries like Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia.

Mr. Wisner, who had been expected to leave Egypt on Tuesday but decided to extend his stay, is among the United States’ most experienced diplomats, and a friend of Mr. Mubarak. His mission was to “keep a conversation going,” according to a close friend of Mr. Wisner.

As a result, this person said, the administration’s first message to the Egyptian leader was not that he had to leave office, but rather that his time in office was quickly coming to a close. Mr. Wisner, who consulted closely with the White House, is expected to be the point person dealing with Mr. Mubarak as the situation evolves, and perhaps as the administration’s message hardens.

Mr. Wisner’s mission took shape over the weekend in a White House meeting, after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recommended him to the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon.

Reinforcing the administration’s message to Mr. Mubarak was an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Tuesday by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he advised Mr. Mubarak to bow out gracefully “to make way for a new political structure.”

Egyptians turned out around the country on Tuesday in the largest demonstrations yet to demand Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. They may hold to that demand and want even more far-reaching change, as Tunisians did after their strongman president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled in mid-January.

In Tahrir Square earlier in the day, the chants of perhaps 200,000 protesters had suggested that the demonstrators would not stop at Mr. Mubarak’s departure.

“The people of Egypt want the president on trial,” some chanted for the first time, shadowed by the burned headquarters of Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party and a vast complex housing a bureaucracy many Egyptians have accused of endlessly humiliating them.

Others chorused: “The people of Egypt want the government to fall.”

“Nobody wants him, nobody,” said El-Mahdy Mohamed, one of the demonstrators. “Can’t he see on the TV what’s happening?”

While the numbers fell short of the million called for at the square, the protest rivaled some of the most epic moments in Egypt’s tumultuous modern history, from the wars with Israel to a coup that sent a corpulent monarch packing on his yacht in 1952.

With little regard, protesters defied a curfew that has become a joke to residents here and overcame attempts by the government to keep protesters away by closing roads, suspending train service and shutting down public transportation to Cairo. Some walked miles to the square, whose name means liberation. Others woke up there in the muddy patches where they had slept for days.

“No one would have imagined a week before that this would happen in Egypt,” said Bassem Ramsis, 37, a director who returned from Spain for the uprising.

The momentous events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and once the axis on which the Arab world revolved, have reverberated across the region. Earlier in the day, King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his cabinet after protests there, and organizers in Yemen and Syria, with their own authoritarian rulers, have called for protests.

In scale and message, the protests in Egypt were a remarkable expression of unity in a country that once represented the Arab world’s nexus but stagnated under Mr. Mubarak’s withering authoritarianism. Peasants from southern Egypt joined Islamists from the Nile Delta and businessmen from upper-class suburbs rubbed shoulders with street-smart youths from gritty Bulaq in a square that served as a vast tapestry of a country’s diversity joined in a blunt message: Mr. Mubarak must surrender power.

“Go already,” read one sign held aloft. “My arm’s starting to hurt.”

Tens of thousands of people also took to the streets of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, north of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast.

Meanwhile, the thousands of foreigners seeking to flee the country led to chaotic scenes at the Cairo airport. The United States ordered all nonemergency embassy and other American government personnel to leave the country, fearing unrest as the protests continue.

The breadth of the uprising, organized by youthful activists and driven by the legions of poor and dispossessed in Egypt, a country of 80 million, stunned even those most critical of Mr. Mubarak’s government. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, has largely stayed in the background. Other opposition leaders — the Nobel laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei among them — have struggled to cultivate support among the protesters, whose demands seem to grow as the uprising gathers force.

Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador to Egypt, spoke by telephone to Mr. ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has emerged as a potential rallying point for opposition, as American officials sought to navigate an uprising that has not only challenged their most loyal ally in the region but also posed a threat to a broader American-backed order in Jordan, Yemen and the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Mr. ElBaradei told Reuters that Mr. Mubarak must leave the country before any dialogue could start between the opposition and the government.

“There can be dialogue but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves,” Mr. ElBaradei told Al Arabiya television. “I hope to see Egypt peaceful and that’s going to require as a first step the departure of President Mubarak. If President Mubarak leaves, then everything will progress correctly.”

Calls for Mr. Mubarak to step aside had been growing. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — a predominantly Islamic country often held up as a model of Western-style democracy — canceled a visit to Egypt planned for next week, urging Mr. Mubarak to “listen to people’s outcries and extremely humanistic demands” and to “meet the freedom demands of people without a doubt,” Reuters reported.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo and Mark Landler from Washington. Reporting was contributed from Cairo by Anthony Shadid, Mona El-Naggar, Kareem Fahim, and Robert F. Worth from Cairo; Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet from Alexandria; and Alan Cowell from London.

This article, "Mubarak Says He Won’t Run for President Again," originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 February 2011 19:21