Obama urges Mubarak to ‘listen’

US president says Egyptian leader should hear concerns of protesters and focus on creating legitimate transition.

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Obama called on Mubarak to ‘make the right decision’ during a news conference with Stephen Harper [Reuters]

Barack Obama, the US president, has said Hosni Mubarak should “listen” to protesters calling for him to quit immediately, but he stopped short of explicitly urging the Egyptian president to go now.

“He needs to listen to what is voiced by the people and make a judgement about a pathway forward that is orderly, that is meaningful and serious,” Obama said on Friday, in carefully worded comments on Egypt’s political future.

Obama told reporters that in two conversations with Mubarak since mass protests against the Egyptian leader’s 30-year rule began 11 days ago he stressed the need for an orderly transition to democracy in the country, long a cornerstone of US Middle East strategy.

“Having made that psychological break, that decision that he will not be running again, I think the most important thing for him to ask himself … is how do we make that transition effective and lasting and legitimate,” Obama said at a news conference with Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister.

“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 … that he will end up making the right decision,” Obama said.

Egypt has been a US ally throughout Mubarak’s reign and the country is strategically vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel and its control of the Suez Canal.

Mubarak ‘a patriot’

In what may have been an effort to quash reports that US and Egyptian officials discussed Mubarak’s immediate resignation, Obama said, “The future of Egypt will be determined by its people.”

“I believe that president Mubarak cares about his country,” Obama said. 

“He is proud, but he is also a patriot,” he added, in a press conference which appeared to deliver a broad hint that Mubarak should go sooner rather than later. 

After two days of clashes between Mubarak loyalists and anti-government protesters and efforts to cut off news coverage of the demonstrations, Obama said the rights of protesters, human rights activists and journalists must be respected.

“Going back to the old ways is not going to work. Suppression’s not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work. Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work,” he said.

The US president stopped short of calling for Mubarak to immediately resign – the demand of the thousands of protesters on the streets of Cairo. But Obama pointedly noted that the Egyptian president has already made a decision not to run for re-election.

A ‘clear message’

The Obama administration has struggled to strike the right note with regards to handling the unrest in Egypt – mixing messages of support for Egyptian protesters and gratitude for the US’s long relationship with the Mubarak government.

But it seems to have streamlined and clarified its message now, analysts say.

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Tom Malinowski, director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch in Washington DC, told Al Jazeera that he does not believe that the Obama administration is equivocating at this point.

“I think there was some initial hesitation … but the message now is quite strong, quite clear,” said Malinowski, whose colleague, Daniel Williams, a researcher at the human rights organisation, has been detained by Egyptian military police since February 3.

“It’s clear that they’re trying to find a way for Mubarak to step aside and to try to find a way to transition power to the interim government –  the language we are hearing is meant to convey that without being so explicit as to sound like Obama is dictating the outcome,” Malinowski said.

He added that human rights activists are concerned that Mubarak’s immediate resignation would complicate matters.

He said that under the Egyptian constitution, the president’s resignation would trigger a process whereby an election would have to take place in under two months. And as it stands, the constitution, “makes it impossible for the opposition to field its own candidates for the election”.

Mubarak, he said, would first have to issue decrees that would lead the way to constitutional change before an election is be held.

“So the sequencing here is very important – the worst thing he (Mubarak) could do to the people on the streets would be to resign without constitutional changes.”

Still, the dilemma faced by the Obama administration, is that “many of those people demonstrating don’t trust the United States anyway, because of the 30-year relationship with Mubarak,” Malinowski said.

“And that’s something the United States government is going to have to work on.”

D. Parvaz contributed to the reporting for this story.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies