Cairo Protests Reach Largest Crowd Yet

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he will step down after elections this year, bowing after 29 years in power to a popular uprising that has begun to reshape the Middle East.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he will step down from power after his term expires this fall, for the first time setting a date to end his three decades of authoritarian rule.

His announcement in a televised address near midnight Tuesday came under pressure from massive demonstrations, the wavering support of his military and a call from President Barack Obama for him to begin to make way for a new leader.

Mr. Mubarak said he wouldn’t run in the next election and called for constitutional reforms, opening the door for opposition groups and his regime to square off for control of the country’s future.

The opposition, which drew an estimated 250,000 protesters to central Cairo Tuesday, rejected his offer. The signal that he would preside over the transition—and remain in power until then—was seen as an attempt to dodge the current crisis without giving a credible guarantee that he would follow through on his reform pledges.

The loose coalition, which includes the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and has coalesced behind Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said they won’t be satisfied until Mr. Mubarak leaves office.

“No one is satisfied,” said Mohammed Morsey, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “He and his system have already failed, and the people do not want him to continue with his colleagues. He has to leave.”

Mr. ElBaradei, a secular leader who recently returned to Egypt as anti-regime protests gathered momentum, said Mr. Mubarak’s move was a “trick,” CNN reported.

That creates a dilemma for the Obama administration. Though Mr. Mubarak appeared to have done what people familiar with the diplomacy said the U.S. had asked—declare he won’t seek re-election—his speech didn’t end tensions in Egypt and didn’t put the U.S. on the side of the people in the street.

He was also less clear on demands for explicit changes to the Egyptian constitution to allow opposition candidates to register to run for the presidency. And he didn’t rule out a run by his son, Gamal Mubarak.

Adding to the uncertainty, an end to the Mubarak regime could promote the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that detractors say is extremist, though it has a moderate wing and has agreed to back Mr. ElBaradei, a secularist.

Mr. Obama, speaking from the White House in a televised address after a half-hour conversation with Mr. Mubarak, said the government must now embark on negotiations with a broad spectrum of the Egyptian society and opposition in a dialogue that leads to “elections that are free and fair.”

“The orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Mr. Obama declared.

He also reached out to protesters. “To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear. We hear your voices,” he said.

But Mr. Mubarak’s promises didn’t placate Egyptians gathered in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focal point of Tuesday’s protest; his speech was met with angry shouts, and calls for his immediate resignation.

“This makes changing the regime much more difficult,” said Issandr Al-Amrani, political analyst and Arab blogger. “The challenge for those in the opposition, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or ElBaradei, is to convince the people without the benefit of state TV or any media” that a quick regime change would be better for the country than the prolonged transition that Mr. Mubarak seemed to outline.

Who succeeds Mr. Mubarak, who has ruled of Egypt for so long he is sometimes referred to as the last Pharaoh, will have a profound impact on the entire region. Egypt maintains relations with Israel, and is a key U.S. ally in fighting Islamic terrorism and standing against Iran and Syria’s growing influence in the region.

Egypt’s opposition groups have a variety of different positions, but most are critical of Israel and skeptical of U.S. actions in the region. Israel gave no official reaction to the speech.

In Al-Arish, a town in northern Sinai near the border with Israel, a group of protesters took to the streets after prayers in solidarity with protests in Cairo.

Mr. Mubarak’s speech was a remarkable turnabout for a president who clung to power so tenaciously, since taking office in 1981, that he had never named a vice president until late last week, when he was under domestic and U.S. pressure to offer concessions.

He is now in line to be the second long-standing Middle Eastern autocrat to be toppled by an unprecedented wave of protest in the Arab world that pushed out Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last month and has other leaders in the region on edge.

While the swelling protests have raised the pressure on Mr. Mubarak, US officials have played an increasingly prominent role in his deliberations over the past two days. The U.S. is Egypt’s most important ally, providing the country more than $1 billion in foreign aid last year.

Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, who was tapped Monday by the State Department to engage the Egyptian government because of his close relations with Mr. Mubarak, delivered a “tough” message to Mr. Mubarak that he shouldn’t run in the September election, a person familiar with the discussions said. The person said the message amounted to: “Now’s the time.”

With the prospect of Mr. Mubarak remaining in office until the fall, the US and Egyptian regime appeared to be working together to try to ensure a transition that wouldn’t immediately thrust opposition groups into positions of power.

The current US ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke with Mr. ElBaradei, who has emerged as the central figure of the Egyptian opposition, administration officials said.

Ms. Scobey encouraged Mr. ElBaradei to “engage in a meaningful dialogue” with the Egyptian government, as pressure mounted on Mr. Mubarak to reform the country’s constitution and move quickly toward free and fair elections, administration officials said.

An aide to Mr. ElBaradei said he had no comment and wouldn’t discuss details of the phone call with Ms. Scobey. Mr. ElBaradei’s office confirmed that it was the U.S. Embassy that initiated the call.

The coordinated plan appeared designed to blunt the influence of Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Officially banned, the Brotherhood is a wide-ranging social and political organization that fields independent candidates in parliament. It has been a key member of the umbrella group of opposition parties headed by Mr. ElBaradei, and U.S. officials meet with its parliamentarians.

US and Egyptian officials worry the Brotherhood could eventually emerge as a dominant force, although Mr. ElBaradei and Mr. Mubarak’s point man in dealing with the opposition, Vice President Omar Suleiman, have said they would be willing to work with the organization.

There was no indication, however, of whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s current status as an illegal organization would change to allow its members to run for office under the group’s name.

Mr. Obama watched his Egyptian counterpart from the White House situation room, where he was gathered with his national security team. After it was over, the team remained cloistered for more than an hour as they discussed the next steps.

The US president then called Mr. Mubarak and spoke with him, before stepping in front of the cameras.

White House advisers on Egypt said Mr. Obama now needs to clarify what the administration meant when it said Friday it would review its military and economic aid to Egypt. That threat can serve as a platform to specify needed changes, advisers said.

Complete article via Wall Street Journal


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: