WASHINGTON — President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to step down Thursday, after a day of rumors galvanized the crowds in Cairo, confronts the Obama administration with a stark choice: Break decisively with Mubarak or stick to its call for an “orderly transition” that may no longer be tenable.
On a day of dashed hopes in Egypt, the administration’s attempts to balance the democratic aspirations of the protesters against a fear of contributing to broader instability in the Middle East collided with Mubarak’s defiant refusal to relinquish his office.
To some extent, Mubarak opened the door for President Barack Obama to appeal even more directly to the protesters, some of whom have felt betrayed by the administration’s cautious approach, saying it placed strategic interests ahead of democratic values. In his speech, Mubarak said he would not brook foreign interference, suggesting that he was digging in his heels after days of U.S. prodding for “immediate, irreversible” change.
Obama’s remarks earlier in the day, in which he celebrated the hopes of a “young generation” of Egyptians, were broadcast in Cairo, drawing cheers from the protesters.
“The administration has to put everything on the line now,” said Thomas Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who has been among several outside experts advising the White House on Egypt in recent days. “Whatever cards they have, this is the time to play them.”
In its first reaction, the administration offered few overt signs of a change in policy. While criticizing the move as insufficient, it made no direct call for Mubarak’s resignation.
Obama watched Mubarak’s speech on board Air Force One, returning from a trip to Michigan, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said. As soon as he arrived at the White House, Obama huddled with his national security aides. The administration appeared as taken aback by Mubarak’s speech as the crowds in Tahrir Square. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, testified before the House of Representatives on Thursday morning that there was a “strong likelihood” that Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.
U.S. officials said Panetta was basing his statement not on secret intelligence but on media broadcasts, which began circulating before he sat down before the House Intelligence Committee. But Obama, too, seemed to believe Egypt was on the cusp of dramatic change. Speaking at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, he said, “We are witnessing history unfold,” adding, “America will do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy.”
The chaotic events Thursday called much of the administration’s strategy in dealing with the Egyptian crisis into question. For days, the administration has pinned its hopes on a transition process managed by the Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman.