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Obama to Mubarak: Time to go

Associated Press | 2/10/2011, 7:09 a.m.
(From l to r) Ayanna Parris of Dorchester and brothers Chris and Carl Williams of Roxbury joined hundreds of...
(From l to r) Ayanna Parris of Dorchester and brothers Chris and Carl Williams of Roxbury joined hundreds of people who gathered in Copley Square to march through downtown Boston in solidarity with the people of Egypt who are calling for an immediate end to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Ernesto Arroyo

Khairi Abaza, a former Egyptian opposition politician now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, welcomed Obama’s remarks and said he interpreted them as a direct call for Mubarak to step aside now.

“To me it was clear,” Abaza said. “But the regime in Egypt is playing dumb. It hasn’t reacted at all. It’s like someone who can’t take a hint.”

A rally Friday by nearly 100,000 protesters in Cairo and behind-the-scenes diplomacy from the Obama administration piled more pressure on Mubarak to make a swift exit and allow a temporary government to embark on an immediate path toward democracy.

Two days of wild clashes between protesters and regime supporters that killed 11 people this week seemed to have pushed the United States to the conclusion that an Egypt with Mubarak at the helm is potentially more unstable than one without him.

Obama did not directly discuss the furious maneuvering to ease Mubarak out. Under one scenario, a military-backed provisional government would govern until the first elections in decades that would not include Mubarak. The United States has hinted broadly that it would like to see the presidential election moved up from September.

Any of that would have been unthinkable before a stunning popular revolt upended the status quo this week in a polite, tourist-friendly police state where Mubarak’s cronies got richer as much of the country got poorer. Obama alluded to the backroom discussions while being careful to say that the decision will be Egypt’s and not its largest foreign patron and longtime ally.

“Going back to the old ways is not going to work,” Obama said.

“If you end up having just gestures towards the opposition but it leads to a continuing suppression of the opposition, that is not going to work. If you have the pretense of reform but not real reform that is not going to be effective.”

That leaves Obama a little room to bring down the hammer later, if he must.

Steve Grand, who heads the Brookings Institution’s work on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, said he understood the president’s hesitation in delivering the final verdict on Mubarak’s presidency. But he said Obama must be running out of patience.

“He could say, ‘It’s time for Mubarak to go,’ and it is just about time that he says that,” Grand said. “At this point, he should be on the side of change. The people of Egypt have spoken loud and clearly, and Mubarak has shown his true colors in these last days.”

Obama has spoken to Mubarak twice as the crisis unfolded. He will probably speak to him at least once more, to say goodbye.

Here’s how he left it for now:

“My hope is he will end up making the right decision.”

 Anne Gearan covers U.S. national security policy for The Associated Press.