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Media Conference Call: Change in Egypt (Audio)

Speakers: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies; Author, Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey
Presider: Robert McMahon, Editor,, Council on Foreign Relations
February 10, 2011

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak defied expectations of his imminent departure on February 10, announcing instead he had transferred some power to Vice President Omar Suleiman. Mubarak said in a televised address that he would go through with plans to turn over power to an elected government when his term ends in September and in the meantime advance efforts to amend the country's constitution.

In a media conference call shortly after Mubarak's announcement, CFR President Richard N. Haass said Mubarak's moves could complicate the country's already difficult short-term political insecurity challenge.

"What I think today also shows more than anything else is that the basic challenges haven't changed," Haass said. "We're still talking about a political transition. Basic questions of pace, sequencing, legal questions, political questions are all out there. The economic challenges as a result of today will, if anything, probably grow slightly greater."

CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook added: "We have seen today some movement but nevertheless Hosni Mubarak remains defiant -- to the end it seems." Noting the initial angry reaction of the crowd massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Cook said it is possible "that we will see this go on in a way that does not end, possibly, peacefully. People were clearly in a celebratory an hour ago anticipating President Mubarak would leave. They're now contending with their expectations being dashed."

Cook stressed that the Egyptian military, rather than usurping presidential power, as some reports earlier in the day indicated, appears to continue to underpin Mubarak's rule. "The military is the pillar of the regime and remains foursquare in support of maintaining the current constitutional order with some modifications," Cook said. "I would even go so far as to say that President Mubarak retains the loyalty of the senior command even though he is transferring power to Vice President Omar Suleiman."

For U.S. policymakers, the crisis in Egypt poses one of the toughest kinds of situations to manage, said Haass. He says the Obama administration has taken a more disciplined approach in recent days, mainly providing advice to the Egyptian authorities through private contacts.

"The bigger reality is still the limits of U.S. influence and the limits of U.S. knowledge," Haass said. "As an observer and a former government official, what strikes me is the limits of what we know and the limits of what we can do to steer things."

Cook said the Obama administration has had a tough time balancing appeals to Egyptian public opinion while maintaining ties to the regime. The Mubarak statements on February 10 could put the administration in an even tougher spot, he says. But Haass emphasized the need for U.S. authorities to manage the relationship with present Egyptian authorities.

"Part of the discipline, I would suggest, of managing this kind of a crisis is not giving in to all those who constantly say we have to get on the right side of history and satisfy people in the square," he said. "That's a dangerous game to play. I would focus much more on getting the Egyptian authorities to make steps in the right direction. If they do that it would have a far more lasting and more meaningful effect on not only the course of events but ultimately U.S. relations with Egypt."

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