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Another roadmap

February 11, 2011

Mubarak’s decision to stay in office deflated Washington’s hope for a speedy transition of power. President Obama has called on the Egyptian government to lay out a step-by-step process that will lead to democracy.

Obama, Mubarak
Obama has called on Mubarak to lay out a step-by-step plan for transitionImage: AP

The expectations were high Thursday not only in Egypt. Washington also expected that President Hosni Mubarak's 30 year reign would come to an end by evening. CIA director Leon Panetta said before a congressional committee that there was a high probability Mubarak would step down. When the Egyptian government announced Mubarak would deliver a speech that evening, everything seemed to be developing as expected.

US President Barack Obama also fanned the excitement. As he spoke to students at Northern Michigan University, Obama said he was following the events in Egypt very closely and would have more to say as the situation developed. He made clear that protests in Egypt were a "moment of transformation."

"What is absolutely clear, is that we are watching history unfold," Obama said.

Taken by surprise

But when Mubarak held his speech later in the day, it became clear history was not unfolding exactly how the demonstrators in Egypt and policymakers in Washington had envisioned. Mubarak appealed to Egyptian nationalism by refusing to bow to foreign pressure. He announced that he would delegate powers to his vice president, but stay in power to oversee the implementation of the promised political reforms.

Mubarak, Suleiman
Mubarak delegated powers to the vice president Omar SuleimanImage: dapd

"It became clearer Mubarak was not going to step down, that he was in fact stepping aside," Steven Cook, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

Limited influence

Since the beginning of the crisis in Egypt, the Obama Administration faced criticism for its changing stance toward Mubarak. Initially, the Administration publicy stood with Mubarak while at the same time asking for the Egyptian people's legitimate demands to be met. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked of a "stable Egyptian government."

But as time passed and the protests intensified, the Obama Administration took a sharper tone with Washington's old ally. Last Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden called his Egyptian counterpart Omar Suleiman and demanded concrete steps. Biden asked for the rights to free assembly and a free press to be respected, the lifting of the emergency laws, the involvement of the opposition in the national dialog, and a timetable for the transition.

However, Washington's demands have had limited impact on events on the ground.

"The limits to what we know and the limits to what we can do to steer things, and the fact is that we can't steer things. At most, we are a limited influence," Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.


After Mubarak's speech, Obama said in written statement that although a transition of authority had been anounced, it was not yet clear if this change was "immediate, meaningful or sufficient." The American president pointed out that many Egyptians "remained unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy." And he called on the Egyptian government to lay out an "unambiguous" step-by-step process that will lead to representative government.

Obama repeated that the Egyptians must determine their own future while at the same time highlighting the demands that Vice President Biden had delivered to Cairo. The demonstrators have a friend in the United States, Obama said. But as in the past, he avoided directly calling on President Mubarak to step down.

Author: Christina Bergmann/ sk
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn