x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Obama: 'Today belongs to the people of Egypt'

US president says 'These are early days and many questions remain unanswered. But I am sure the Egyptian people will find those answers. '

WASHINGTON // Eleven days after the US president, Barack Obama ,called for an immediate transition of power in Egypt, the moment finally arrived yesterday.

Now the focus in the US will be on what happens next after the "historic" resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Early reactions showed that the US believes this is a potential turning point for democracy in Egypt and in the region.

President Barack Obama, in a televised speech late last night, said: "Today belongs to the people of Egypt. "The people of Egypt have spoken _ their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same. These are early days and many questions remain unanswered. But I am sure the Egyptian people will find those answers. Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.

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COUNTDOWN TO THE FALL OF HOSNI MUBARAK

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"The Egyptian army has served patriotically and responsibly and now must ensure a transition that is credible to the Egyptian people. This transition must bring all of Egyptian's forces to the table. The US will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt and provide whatever assistance is needed and asked for. We have seen a new generation emerge. Those people have discovered in the past few days that they are worth something, and hat cannot be taken away from them."

Mr Obama  said the military must end the state of emergency that Mubarak imposed and protect the rights of citizens.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, issued a statement urging a peaceful transition of power that "leads to true democracy for Egypt, including free, fair and open elections".

The transfer of power to the military in Egypt will have come as a relief to the White House if for no other reason than that it provides some clarity. The US administration has been careful over the past weeks - too careful for some - not to get out ahead of events on the ground, events that US intelligence had failed to predict and whose course was uncertain.

But as the protests in Egypt continued, Mr Mubarak's determination to cling onto power caused frustration in the administration. This was most obvious on Thursday, when after Mr Obama spoke of witnessing "history unfold", Mr Mubarak appeared on television to confound expectations, including those of Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, that he would resign then.

In response, Mr Obama released a terse statement that came as close as he had yet come to call directly on Mr Mubarak to step down.

Mr Mubarak's words did not make it clear, the US president said, "that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient".

The statement was at "a higher decibel level", said Steve Clemens of the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. But it fell short of calling on Mr Mubarak to resign, he said, because of US concerns over how that would play out in the region at large as well as affect events in Egypt.

That concern was evident from the beginning of the protests, when the US was caught between showing continued support for a long-time ally and responding to popular protests calling for almost exactly the same things that Mr Obama predicted they would in his speech in Cairo in 2009.

And while the administration did go from steadfast support of Mr Mubarak's government in the early days of the protests to calling for immediate change, it did so with significant prevarication along the way.

Last weekend, in fact, the US seemed to step back slightly from calling for imminent change and signalled it would support a gradual transition under Omar Suleiman, the vice president.

But Mr Suleiman then appeared to reject a number of US demands for political reform on Tuesday, when he warned demonstrators against staying on the streets.

That elicited an angry retort from the White House, where Robert Gibbs, the spokesman said the Egyptian vice president had "made some particularly unhelpful comments about Egypt not being ready for democracy, about not seeing a lift of the emergency law."

Since then, the US position appeared to firm up again, though Mclemarina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested US prevarication had been a "disaster" because it had left the administration looking indecisive.

The question now is whether the military will oversee the genuine change that Mr Obama has been calling for since February 1. The US has maintained direct military-to-military contacts at the highest level throughout the protests and has reinforced the message that the US wanted a peaceful outcome - the one signal US officials have consistently sent these past weeks.

The US spends US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) annually in military aid to Egypt, and the Egyptian army relies on the US for maintenance and upgrades. That close relationship has provided the US with a crucial back channel to the Egyptian chiefs of staff.

Those contacts will now take on even more importance, as the army in Egypt is tasked with overseeing a transition to the kind of democracy the US says it wants to emerge.

okarmi@thenational.ae