Obama says anew: Time to begin transition 'now'
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday appealed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to focus on his legacy and begin an orderly process to relinquish the power he has held for 30 years. But Obama stopped short of calling for Mubarak's immediate resignation.
"My hope is he will end up making the right decision," Obama said at the White House.
He commented at a brief news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper following a day of meetings.
After a week and a half of street protests in Cairo calling for Mubarak's ouster, Obama said that discussions have begun in Egypt on a turnover of the government.
"We want to see this moment of turmoil turned into a moment of opportunity. The world is watching," Obama said.
The president said he was encouraged with the restraint shown Friday after some violent exchanges the day before, and he repeated that the U.S. opposes violence by either the government or the protesters.
"This is obviously still a fluid situation, and we're monitoring it closely," Obama said.
He said the U.S. wants to send a "strong and clear message" that attacks on journalists, human rights activists and peaceful protesters "are unacceptable."
He did not directly blame the Mubarak government for the attacks but said the Egyptian government is responsible for protecting its people.
Obama did not insist that Mubarak leave immediately. But he talked about "a transition period that begins now."
He said the process must "lead to free and fair elections" but that "details of this transition will be worked by Egyptians."
Pressed on whether Mubarak should leave office immediately, Obama appealed to the longtime Egyptian leader to consider the greater good of Egypt and take steps now to push the country toward democratic reform.
"He is proud, but he's also a patriot," Obama said.
Obama said that since Mubarak announced this week he wouldn't run for re-election, "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, and my hope is he will end up making the right decision."
Mere gestures toward the opposition are not enough, Obama said.
"Going back to the old ways is not going to work," he said, meaning violence, oppression and limits on communication.
Obama said the new government should be "responsible to the grievances of the Egyptian people."
It was Obama's first time answering questions since the crisis began, although he had spoken publicly twice before on the tense situation.
Obama administration officials have been holding talks with top Egyptian officials on the formation of a military-backed caretaker government that could prepare the country for new elections.
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic talks, stressed that the United States isn't seeking to impose a solution on Egypt but suggested the administration has made a judgment that Mubarak must go soon if there is to be a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
White House and State Department officials would not discuss details of the discussions U.S. officials are having with the Egyptians. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman on Thursday, a day after a similar conversation between Suleiman and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Officials said neither Biden nor Clinton made a specific call for Mubarak to resign immediately but pressed for measures that would ease tensions on the streets and set the stage for democratic elections.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday the U.S. hasn't raised its military readiness or alert status. Adm. Mike Mullen also said there shouldn't be any rush to terminate military assistance to Egypt.
The United States on Thursday severely criticized what it called systematic attacks on journalists in Egypt and said they appeared to be an attempt to shut out reporting of even bigger anti-government demonstrations to come.
Clinton condemned "in the strongest terms" the pro-government mobs that beat, threatened and intimidated reporters in Cairo.
Attacks as well on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners and diplomats were "unacceptable under any circumstances," she said. Clinton pointed the finger at Mubarak's government without explicitly blaming the 82-year-old president for the violence.
Foreign photographers reported attacks by Mubarak supporters near Cairo's Tahrir Square, the scene of battles between Mubarak supporters and protesters demanding he step down after nearly 30 years in power.
The Egyptian government has accused media outlets of being sympathetic to protesters who want Mubarak to quit now rather than complete his term.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate approved a non-binding resolution late Thursday urging Mubarak to hand over power to a caretaker government and begin a peaceful transition to a democratic society.