After more than two weeks of anti-regime protests in Egypt that had sometimes caught the United States off balance, President Obama Friday hailed the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, saying "the people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
Mubarak's exit came as welcome news after days of uncertainty. The event that Obama and administration officials had been hoping for did finally happen Friday, a day later than some had expected.
Obama said Friday “this is not the end of Egypt’s transition — it’s the beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead and many questions remain unanswered.”
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But he added he had confidence that the Egyptian people “can find the answers and do so peacefully.”
He compared the change of power in Cairo to the fall of the Berlin Wall and quoted Martin Luther King’s statement that “there’s something in the soul that cries out for freedom.”
Obama praised the Egyptian military, which he said had “served patriotically and responsibly” as a caretaker but “will have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people.” He said that must include lifting the emergency law and “laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.”
The president lavished most of his praise on the demonstrators in the streets of Cairo.
"Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained by violence."
"For Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more."
Hoping that ferment spreads to Iran?
Speaking after Obama, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the Iranian government for not allowing its people to voice dissent and demand democracy.
“There is quite a contrast between the way the government of Egypt and the people of Egypt are interacting, and the government of Iran is threatening its very own people,” Gibbs said.
“I think if the government of Iran was as confident as they would have you believe in the statements that they put out, they would have nothing to fear with the peaceful demonstrations like those you’ve seen in Cairo and throughout Egypt. They’re not that confident; they’re scared. That’s why they’ve threatened to kill anybody that tries to do this ... .”
Speaking in Kentucky Friday a few hours before Obama made his remarks at the White House, Vice President Joe Biden also made pointed reference to Iran, saying, "What is at stake in Egypt and across the Middle East is not just about Egypt alone."
He said it was time for Iranian leaders to let their people speak out freely. "I say to my Iranian friends: let your people march, let your people speak ... it's a bankrupt system."
Climax to weeks of protest
The announcement Friday by Vice President Omar Suleiman that Mubarak was ceding power was the climax to street protests and efforts by U.S. officials to persuade Mubarak to retire and allow his country to evolve toward a genuine democracy.
A leading Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, "For the past 30 years we have spent American tax dollars to build relationships between the United States and Egyptian military. This long relationship bore at least some measure of fruit during the recent crisis when the Egyptian military remained loyal to the people of Egypt — not its ruler."
But the change of power in Cairo raised questions about the long-term effects of a new regime on American strategic interests in the Middle East.
Kerry warns of Gaza precedent
Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, said Friday that Egypt’s new leaders “must heed the call to lift the emergency law and clarify a timetable to establish a proper foundation for credible elections.”
Like Biden, Kerry pointed to potential effects on other governments. “What happens next will have repercussions far beyond Egypt’s borders,” he said. “We know from recent experience in Gaza that this requires not just elections, but hard work to build a government that is transparent, accountable, and broadly representative.”
In the 2006 elections in Gaza, the radical Islamic movement Hamas, which has ties to the Iranian regime, won a majority in the Palestinian parliament. That came as a stunning and unwelcome outcome for the U.S. and Israeli governments, who designate Hamas as a terrorist organization.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called Friday for internationally-recognized elections and said “the Egyptian military can continue to play a constructive role in providing for security and stability during this transformational period.”
She said the Obama administration must “urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.”
Three decades of close U.S.-Egypt military ties
Over the past three decades, U.S. military officers have built close relationships with the Egyptian military, with Egyptian officers studying at U.S. staff colleges and joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises and strategic planning.
The shift to military rule makes the familiarity of U.S. officers with their Egyptian counterparts such as Gen. Sami Anan, chief of staff of the armed forces, all the more important — as Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff proved Thursday night.
Pentagon officials told NBC News that Mullen, called Enan Thursday night after Mubarak's surprise non-resignation speech. The officials would not characterize the discussion.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also called Field Marshall Tantawi.
Obama and his aides had been forced to improvise a short-term response Thursday after Mubarak’s non-resignation speech left many stumped.
Change in Obama's tone
Obama's tone was less sanguine Thursday night than it had been earlier in the day, when he’d declared that it was “absolutely clear” that “we are witnessing history.”
In contrast, Obama's glum Thursday night statement was on paper and not in front of TV cameras.
"Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world," Obama’s statement said Thursday night.
Many observers had expected Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981, to step down on Thursday.
CIA chief Leon Panetta hinted in a House hearing Thursday that Mubarak’s departure was only a matter of hours.
Responding to a question from House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R- Mich., Panetta said, “I got the same information you did. That there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt takes place.”
But Panetta also explained to the committee the difficulties facing CIA analysts in trying to predict when a despot will cede power.
“Our biggest problem is always, how do we get into the head of somebody? We're trying to get into the head of Kim in North Korea. We're trying to get into the head of the supreme leader in Iran. When it came to (former Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine) Ben Ali, I think everybody assumed the dictator... was going to basically crush any kind of demonstration. I don't think he even knew he was going to get the hell out of town until he decided to jump on a plane and leave.”
But Panetta claimed “frankly, because of what happened in Tunisia” where Ben Ali was forced out of power last month, “we were in a better place to look at Egypt and what was happening in Egypt.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.