What Barack Obama Has Not Said About Egypt

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After a week of limited access to the press, President Obama took one question on the situation in Egypt today. His answer echoed his past statements. He said Egyptians would determine their own destiny: “It is not us who will determine that future.” He said violence and the denial of the protesters’ basic rights to expression must be avoided: “Suppression is not going to work.” He called for an “orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, a representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people.” Then he proceeded to say that he hoped Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “makes the right decision.”

Reporters attending the briefing did not leave knowing much more about the Obama Administration’s position with regards to Egypt than they had when they walked in, which was a success for Obama. Clearly, the White House does not want to carry out its diplomacy with the various interests in Egypt in public view. The current U.S. policy is to continue dialog with as many groups as possible–from the opposition leaders, to the military, to the regime. White House aides have looked back at the experience of Jimmy Carter in Iran in 1979 and concluded that Carter should have established better avenues of communication across the broad swath of Iranian society. So the real details of the American position towards Egypt remain shielded from public view.

Some questions Obama has not answered: Has the U.S. threatened tangible consequences, like a severing of aid, or condemnation at the U.N., if the Egyptian military engages the protesters violently? Does Obama think Mubarak and his Vice President Omar Suleiman can remain honest brokers of this transition? If they continue to behave as they did Thursday, with their government rounding up journalists and their supporters attacking protesters, are there tangible consequences that the U.S. has threatened beyond further verbal warnings? Have U.S. officials encouraged the Egyptian military to push Mubarak to leave? Would the U.S. support Suleiman remaining in power as an interim president if Mubarak left power? What if the opposition groups refused to abide that situation? Does the U.S. want to encourage or discourage further destabilizing peaceful, democratic protests in other Arab autocracies?

All of these questions have no doubt been debated, if not finally answered, within the National Security Council, the U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department. But none of this has been discussed publicly. Rather Obama has crafted a message based on abstract principles, while he avoids engaging the specifics: The U.S. stands for certain basic values; the U.S. wants speedy, meaningful transition; the U.S. will not decide the fate of Egypt. Exactly what these principles mean for Obama at this moment in time remains unclear. White House officials, with little control over events in Cairo, want to keep their options open.

After the jump, I have posted the full transcript of Obama’s statements on Egypt Friday.

Let me close by saying a few words about the situation in Egypt.  This is obviously still a fluid situation and we’re monitoring it closely, so I’ll make just a few points.

First, we continue to be crystal-clear that we oppose violence as a response to this crisis.  In recent days, we’ve seen violence and harassment erupt on the streets of Egypt that violates human rights, universal values and international norms. So we are sending a strong and unequivocal message:  Attacks on reporters are unacceptable.  Attacks on human rights activists are unacceptable.  Attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable.

The Egyptian government has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people.  Those demonstrating also have a responsibility to do so peacefully.  But everybody should recognize a simple truth:  The issues at stake in Egypt will not be resolved through violence or suppression.  And we are encouraged by the restraint that was shown today.  We hope that it continues.

Second, the future of Egypt will be determined by its people.  It’s also clear that there needs to be a transition process that begins now.  That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections.

The details of this transition will be worked by Egyptians. And my understanding is that some discussions have begun.  But we are consulting widely within Egypt and with the international community to communicate our strong belief that a successful and orderly transition must be meaningful.  Negotiations should include a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition, and this transition must address the legitimate grievances of those who seek a better future.

Third, we want to see this moment of turmoil turn into a moment of opportunity.  The entire world is watching.  What we hope for and what we will work for is a future where all of Egyptian society seizes that opportunity.  Right now a great and ancient civilization is going through a time of tumult and transformation.  And even as there are grave challenges and great uncertainty, I am confident that the Egyptian people can shape the future that they deserve.  And as they do, they will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the United States of America. . . .

Q    Thank you very much, Mr. President.  Is it conceivable to you that a genuine process of democratic reform can begin in Egypt while President Mubarak remains in power, or do you think his stepping aside is needed for reform even to begin?

And to Prime Minister Harper, on the energy issue, did you discuss Canada’s role as a secure source of oil for the United States, and in particular, did you receive any assurances the U.S. administration looks favorably on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline to the Gulf Coast?  Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I have had two conversations with President Mubarak since this crisis in Egypt began, and each time I’ve emphasized the fact that the future of Egypt is going to be in the hands of Egyptians.  It is not us who will determine that future.  But I have also said that in light of what’s happened over the last two weeks, going back to the old ways is not going to work.  Suppression is not going to work.  Engaging in violence is not going to work.  Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work.

In order for Egypt to have a bright future — which I believe it can have — the only thing that will work is moving a orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, a representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people.

Now, I believe that President Mubarak cares about his country.  He is proud, but he’s also a patriot.  And what I’ve suggested to him is, is that he needs to consult with those who are around him in his government.  He needs to listen to what’s being voiced by the Egyptian people and make a judgment about a pathway forward that is orderly, but that is meaningful and serious.

And I believe that — he’s already said that he’s not going to run for reelection.  This is somebody who’s been in power for a very long time in Egypt.  Having made that psychological break, that decision that he will not be running again, I think the most important for him to ask himself, for the Egyptian government to ask itself, as well as the opposition to ask itself, is how do we make that transition effective and lasting and legitimate.

And as I said before, that’s not a decision ultimately the United States makes or any country outside of Egypt makes.  What we can do, though, is affirm the core principles that are going to be involved in that transition.  If you end up having just gestures towards the opposition but it leads to a continuing suppression of the opposition, that’s not going to work.  If you have the pretense of reform but not real reform, that’s not going to be effective.

And as I said before, once the President himself announced that he was not going to be running again, and since his term is up relatively shortly, 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, is that he will end up making the right decision.