WASHINGTON — Bristling with impatience, President Barack Obama on Thursday openly and sharply questioned whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's pledge to shift power to his vice president is an "immediate, meaningful or sufficient" sign of reform for a country in upheaval.
Without naming Mubarak, Obama issued a written statement that criticized the leader for not offering clarity to his people or a concrete path to democracy. He called on Egyptian government leaders to do so, declaring: "They have not yet seized that opportunity."
Obama's comments came after Mubarak, in a televised speech, refused to step down despite intense speculation that he was on the brink of ouster. He said he was delegating powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman, yet Mubarak remained president and defiantly said he would so until a successor was elected to replace him in September. Protesters were shocked, saddened and enraged.
At the White House, Obama scrambled with his national security team over how to respond to a speech that had left many surprised and even baffled. In his statement, Obama challenged Egypt's leaders to plainly explain what the new changes mean and how they would lead them to the freedoms or opportunities that have driven enormous crowds into the streets since late January.
"Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy," Obama said, "and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world."
Still, analysts and even U.S. officials themselves acknowledge the White House has limited power to shape what Egypt does.
Obama devoted most of statement to the familiar calls by his government for Egypt to respect the rights of its people and to immediately negotiate a path to free elections.
The fast-changing developments capped 17 days of mass anti-government protests, the strongest challenge ever to Mubarak's nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule. The White House has warned Egypt's leaders that they should not expect those protests to go away until they respond appropriately; at issue are deep concerns over repression, poverty and corruption.
The events seemed to catch many by surprise.
Before Mubarak's speech, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress there was "a strong likelihood" that the Egyptian leader was on the way out and could step down as early as Thursday night. Egypt's military had assured protesters that Mubarak would meet their demands.
Yet the Egyptian president stuck to a framework for reform that protesters have roundly rejected out of fear that it will mean only cosmetic change.
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