By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 4:00 PM
The White House Wednesday condemned the violence against protesters in Egypt as "outrageous and deplorable" and suggested that it may have been orchestrated by President Hosni Mubarak's government.
"Obviously, if any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. He reiterated Obama's public call Tuesday evening, communicated directly to Mubarak in a telephone call, that "the time for a transition has come, and that time is now."
As events moved quickly in Egypt, where the massive protests that were peaceful Tuesday turned violent as dark fell on Wednesday, the administration struggled to stay abreast. U.S. military leaders with contacts in Egypt's officer corps worked the telephones to find out why the army had not forcefully intervened when apparent pro-Mubarak activists moved against those still occupying Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and to urge them to quell the clashes.
As an high-level interagency group convened for crisis consultations at the White House, officials were examining the complicated web of U.S. aid programs in Egypt to determine where leverage might best be used.
While Obama on Tuesday predicted "difficult days ahead" in Egypt, the White House seemed taken aback by the swift turn of events on the ground Wednesday. "We're watching those events," Gibbs said. "We're planning for those events."
"Obviously...a considerable amount of staff time has been spent on this," he said. "Some of the president's time, obviously, has been dedicated to watching, taking note of and responding to the events...what we're watching is history being made."
The question was the extent to which the administration was actually able to influence and guide those events. The special administration envoy sent to Cairo over the weekend, retired diplomat Frank G. Wisner, was asked to stay in Egypt and continue conversations with Mubarak and other officials.
The U.S. military has also begun tallying what a senior official called its "assets and capabilities" in the region in case a more robust evacuation of American diplomats and citizens in Egypt became necessary. On Monday, the State Department began operating charter flights for voluntary departures and on Tuesday it ordered all diplomatic families and non-essential personnel to leave the country.
Gibbs also said that Obama had telephoned Jordanian King Abdullah II late Tuesday. As unrest has spread across the region, Abdullah fired his cabinet and pledged reforms. But some sources close to the situation in Jordan worried that newly appointed officials there were unlikely to take firm steps toward increased political freedom.
In brief public remarks at the White House Tuesday evening, Obama was clearly frustrated by Mubarak's announced intention to retain his hold on power until elections later this year. He said he had told Mubarak in a telephone conversation that a transition to representative government "must begin now."
Obama made no mention of Mubarak's agreement earlier in the day not to stand for re-election. Instead, he said he had told the Egyptian president that this was a "moment of transformation" in Egypt and that "the status quo is not sustainable."
Obama's message appeared carefully calibrated to avoid publicly calling for Mubarak to stand down, while making clear he should stand aside. Administration officials say they are seeking a transitional government, with or without Mubarak as its titular head, formed by representative reform leaders and backed by the Egyptian army that will address legitimate grievances, restore stability and plan for a free election.
"The key part of the statement was 'now,' " an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Speaking with Mubarak Tuesday, Wisner made clear that it would be useful if Mubarak said he had no plans to run in the scheduled September election, officials said. But the bulk of the meeting was spent urging Mubarak to turn over control far sooner.
While Mubarak appeared to understand the first part of the message, it was not clear to the White House until his speech was broadcast Tuesday afternoon that he had dismissed the second part. In Cairo, protesters greeted the speech with continued demands that Mubarak leave office immediately.
"All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people," Obama said. It was "not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders," he said. But "what is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."
Obama was effusive in his praise for the Egyptian military, which did not interfere in protests Tuesday that were the largest yet in a week of massive demonstrations in Cairo and other cities. He spoke of "the sense of community in the streets" and the "mothers and fathers embracing soldiers."
Addressing the protesters, Obama said their "passion and dignity" was "an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States and to all those who believe in the inevitability of freedom."
"I want to be clear, we hear your voices," he said.
"Throughout this process, the United States will continue to extend the hand of partnership and friendship to Egypt," Obama said. "We stand ready to provide assistance that is necessary to help the Egyptian people as they manage the aftermath of these protests."
An administration official said that Obama's 30-minute conversation with Mubarak, which occurred after the Egyptian leader's televised speech, was "direct and frank," and similar to the public statement Obama then made at the White House.
Obama told Mubarak that "it was clear how much he loves his country, and how difficult this is for him," the official said. Obama also told him that "an orderly transition can't be prolonged - it must begin now."
Obama and his national security team - including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon - watched Mubarak's address, and the public reaction to it in Cairo, in the White House Situation Room.
Their meeting then continued with a discussion of how to respond to Mubarak and to protests spreading across the Arab world. After demonstrators took to the streets in Jordan, King Abdullah II announced in Amman on Tuesday that he had fired the Jordanian prime minister and dismissed the government.
Officials declined to comment on whether Obama had called Abdullah and other regional leaders Tuesday.
Before the Situation Room meeting adjourned after about an hour and 10 minutes, Obama decided to call Mubarak personally and to make a public statement. As speechwriters began to compose the statement, the president went to the Oval Office to make the call.
The administration's position is similar to that spelled out Tuesday morning by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called for Mubarak to both declare that neither he nor his son would run in September and to pledge to work with the Egyptian army and civil society to establish "an interim, caretaker government as soon as possible to oversee an orderly transition in the coming months."
Kerry, whose comments appeared in an op-ed article in the New York Times, said that Egypt's stability "hinges on [Mubarak's] willingness to step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure."
In a statement issued after Mubarak's remarks, Kerry again called on him to "work now with the military and civil society to establish an interim caretaker government."