Mubarak finger at Obama 311 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON - After a week of crossed signals and strained
conversations, the Obama administration finally had good news: Late
Wednesday, CIA and Pentagon officials learned of the Egyptian military's
plan to relieve Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of his powers
immediately and end the unrest that had convulsed the country for more
than two weeks.The Egyptian president startled the Obama administration and many of his
aides with an address in which he appeared determined to cling to
office. The speech surprised and angered the White House, enraged
Cairo's legions of protesters and pushed the country closer to chaos,
current and former US government officials said in interviews recounting
the events of the past 48 hours.
The scheme would unfold Thursday, with the only uncertainty being
Mubarak's fate. "There were two scenarios: He would either leave office,
or he would transfer power," said a US government official who was
briefed on the plan. "These were not speculative scenarios. There was
solid information" and a carefully crafted script.
Egypt's Mubarak steps down as president
Cairo erupts in celebration as Mubarak resigns
Obama pledges friendship, assistance to Egyptian people
But the Egyptian president decided at the last minute to change the ending.
"Mubarak called an audible," the official said.
In the end, Mubarak's efforts only ensured a hasty and ignominious
departure, the officials said. Within hours of the speech, Egyptian army
officials confronted the discredited president with an ultimatum: Step
down voluntarily or be forced out.
Mubarak's defiant speech - described by some US officials as bordering
on delusional - was a final, wild plot twist in a saga that had played
out in Egypt and Washington over the past 18 days. The likelihood of
Mubarak's departure alternately rose and dipped as US military officers
and diplomats quietly worked with their Egyptian counterparts in a
search for peaceful resolution to the country's worst unrest in six
By midweek, confronted with growing throngs in Cairo, labor strikes and
deteriorating economic conditions, top military and civilian leaders
reached an apparent agreement with Mubarak on some form of power
transfer. The details of the plan - and how it unraveled Thursday - were
described in interviews with six former and current US government
officials who were knowledgeable about the details. Most of the sources
insisted on anonymity in agreeing to talk about the administration's
internal policy discussions and diplomatic exchanges with Egyptian
Communication between top US and Egyptian officials had become
increasingly sporadic early this week as Mubarak deputies complained
publicly about US interference in Cairo's affairs. But then US
intelligence and military officials began to learn details of the the
plan by Egyptian military leaders - something between a negotiated exit
and a soft coup d'etat - to relieve Mubarak of most, if not all, of his
The plan went into effect Thursday with announcements in Cairo to
pro-democracy demonstrators that their key demands were about to be met.
A rare meeting was convened of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed
Forces, and afterward a military spokesman released a communique that
seemed to assert the army's control over the government. The statement
stressed "the responsibility of the armed forces and its commitment to
protect the people and its keenness to protect the nation."
The statement prompted cheers among the hundreds of thousands of
demonstrators who had gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square anticipating an
announcement of Mubarak's departure.
Hours later in Washington, CIA Director Leon Panetta made a scheduled
appearance before the House Intelligence Committee. Asked about Egypt,
he cited reports suggesting a "strong likelihood that Mubarak may step
down this evening." The CIA retreated from the assertion, saying the
director was referring to news reports, but the agency's classified
cables continued to point to a likely transfer of power in Egypt that
day, according to two US officials familiar with the intelligence.
US President Barack Obama was en route to Marquette, Mich., for an event
on wireless technology. Just before 2 p.m. Washington time, he took to
the stage at Northern Michigan University to signal his approval for a
transfer of power in Egypt that appeared to be only minutes away. "We
are witnessing history unfold," an ebullient Obama said.
His words hinting of historic changes under way in Egypt were meant to
express optimism without forecasting when Mubarak might surrender his
powers, an administration official said. But the speech added to the
growing anticipation about a speech by the Egyptian president set to
take place two hours later.
A solemn-looking Mubarak appeared on Egypt's state television just as
Obama was returning to Washington. The US president and his aides
watched with increasing dismay as Mubarak criticized Western
interference and ticked off a list of promises for the coming months.
Although he referred vaguely to a decision to transfer "some of the
power" to his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, his tone
was defiant and he offered no hint of stepping down.
US officials and Middle East experts who analyzed the speech said it was
a case of extraordinary miscalculation on Mubarak's part. "It was a
public relations disaster," said Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador
to Egypt. The speech provoked roars of outrage from Tahrir Square as
thousands of demonstrators began to march on the presidential palace and
state TV headquarters, many of them shouting, "Leave, leave."
"Mubarak went off script," said said Scott Carpenter, a Middle East
expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But it
wasn't what he said so much as it was the way he said it. He essentially
agreed to say everything the army wanted him to say, but he couldn't
say it the way people expected him to."
After landing in Washington, Obama assembled his national security team
in the Oval Office to discuss the response. He sat down afterward to pen
a first draft of his public response, choosing language that more
clearly than ever put the White House on the side of the demonstrators.
The final version began with this sentence: "The Egyptian people have
been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet
clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient."
"It unmistakably aligned us with the aspirations of the people in Tahrir
Square," said a senior administration official involved in the Oval
It was a crucial shift for a White House that had been the scene of
sometimes heated exchanges between aides who pressed for a strong
message of support for democratic change in Egypt and others who worried
that doing so could disrupt the traditional government-to-government
relationship with a key ally.
There was a discernible change in Cairo, as well. Within hours of
Mubarak's speech, "support for Mubarak from the8 military dropped
precipitously," said a US government official who closely tracked the
"The military had been willing - with the right tone in the speech - to
wait and see how it played out," the official said. "They didn't like
what they saw."
Even Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief, joined ranks with
military leaders late Thursday. "He had been trying to walk a fine line
between retaining support for Mubarak while trying to infuse common
sense into the equation," the US official said. "By the end of the day,
it was clear the situation was no longer tenable."
Mubarak was told Friday that he must step down, and within hours, he was
on his way to the Red Sea resort of Sharm e-Sheikh. It was Suleiman who
announced the change in leadership. At 11 a.m. Cairo time, the vice
president stood before a television camera to formally declare the end
of three decades of Mubarak rule.
"[Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the
office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of
the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country," Suleiman
said. "May God help everybody."