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Obama gets tough on Egypt's weakened strong man

Mark Mardell | 03:53 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011

President Barack Obama has suddenly got tough on America's ally of 30 years. What's more, he's abandoned the language of a law professor and adopted the tone of a civil rights leader. He's made it crystal clear he's on the side of the street, not the weakened strong man. As mass demonstrations turned into a revolution, under the benign but watchful eye of the army, the White House has been struggling to keep pace. Maybe now Mr Obama has caught up. Just about.

Mr Obama watched President Hosni Mubarak's defiant and grudging speech, promising he had always intended to step down in September, in the White House Situation Room in the middle of a meeting of the national security council. He evidently wasn't over-impressed by what he heard. The American president then phoned the Egyptian president. They talked for half an hour.

Then it was Mr Obama's turn to make a speech. He didn't quite call for Mr Mubarak to quit at once. He did say "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now".

An official has told the Washington Post that the emphasis is on the word "now".

Mr Obama said that Mr Mubarak recognised that "a change must take place", adding pointedly: "All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people."

This is a step change from Friday's talk of the need for dialogue. But if Mr Obama is being somewhat more forthright in public, the language of officials has changed completely in private. From being cagey and guarded even off the record, they are now blunt. Mr Mubarak's promise to go in September "is no longer enough", one told the BBC.

Western diplomats say that they and the US state department have come separately to the same conclusion: Mubarak must go now. Real reform will not work while he is at the helm.

But Mr Obama's most important shift was to give whole-hearted support to the Egyptians on the street, who Mr Mubarak portrayed a couple of hours before as violent looters motivated by some sinister political force.

Mr Obama was no longer the law professor talking of "legitimate grievances". He was the man whose political career has been driven by the spirit of the US civil rights movement, telling Egyptians their passion and dignity were an inspiration to the rest of the world. His rhetoric soared as he became almost the guarantor of a successful revolution:

"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren."

He lavished praise on the "professionalism and patriotism" of the Egyptian army in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. Without the army the revolution would be over, and Mr Obama and his whole administration is trying to ensure it stays on side. He said: "We've seen tanks covered with banners, and soldiers and protesters embracing in the streets. And going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful."

Mr Obama sounded as if he wanted to join the Egyptians on the streets. The army, the people, the American president. It is a powerful alliance. He may redeem himself with the demonstrators. It is less certain Mr Mubarak will take a blind bit of notice.

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