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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Decoding Obama's statement on Egypt and Mubarak

By Glenn Kessler

President Obama delivered remarks on the crisis in Egypt from the White House on Tuesday evening. Here is a guide through his carefully-crafted words.

"Good evening, everybody. Over the past few days, the American people have watched the situation unfolding in Egypt. We've seen enormous demonstrations by the Egyptian people. We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States."

The president sets the stage by acknowledging the riveting scenes on television. He gives a nod both to Egypt's long and glorious history and to its current role as a key U.S. ally under Hosni Mubarak.

"And my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe. And throughout this period, we've stood for a set of core principles."

Here, the president signals his administration has been working hard to deal with the crisis. By saying "core principles," he wants to convey that the administration has always had a consistent policy and is not stumbling around for a strategy.

"First, we oppose violence. And I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. 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."

This is a warning to Mubarak and the military--no violence or all bets are off--though it is couched in praise for the troops. Hailing the military in this way is a calculated risk for Obama because military officials might interpret it as a green light to restore order. But he is trying to acknowledge that things have not gotten worse in the past week because of the restraint shown by the military.

"Second, we stand for universal values, including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information. Once more, we've seen the incredible potential for technology to empower citizens and the dignity of those who stand up for a better future. And going forward, the United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world."

The "freedom to access information" is a new freedom for the age of the Internet. In the past year, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made Internet freedom a core part of their human rights policy. Here the president is emphasizing that theme again, with his second sentence suggesting that the administration's focus on this issue is yielding results. Notably, he does not say he agrees with the specific demands of the protesters, simply that they have the right to make demands.

"Third, we have spoken out on behalf of the need for change. After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people. Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times."

By mentioning his call to Mubarak, Obama is once again trying to convey that he is on top of the situation. He is also reporting to the American people that he has heard directly from Mubarak and that change will take place. The president's words have the effect of locking in Mubarak's decision not to run again, making it more difficult for the Egyptian president to change his mind.

"Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear -- and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak -- is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."

In the first sentence, the president wants to underscore that he cannot fire Mubarak and is not pushing him out--in part to placate other autocratic allies. Then he gives the money sentence of his statement: "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." This means that Mubarak cannot wait until the scheduled September elections. But Obama's use of the word "indicated" is curious. Does this mean he did not put it so boldly to Mubarak? Or by not using the word "told" is he trying to avoid looking like he is giving orders to another leader? In any case, "indicated" weakens the impact of his statement. And he pointedly still does not say Mubarak must step down now.

"Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that's not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

This is the second most important part of the statement. For the first time in this crisis, the president lays down specific courses of action that the Egyptian government should follow. These are broad principles, but this statement will allow the administration to judge whether the transition is actually resulting in real change.

"Throughout this process, the United States will continue to extend the hand of partnership and friendship to Egypt. And we stand ready to provide any assistance that is necessary to help the Egyptian people as they manage the aftermath of these protests."

This is self-explanatory: aid to Egypt will continue or possibly be enhanced if progress is made.

"Over the last few days, the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom. 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. And I say that as someone who is committed to a partnership between the United States and Egypt."

This is a shout-out to the demonstrators, who Obama knows will be disappointed that he did not say, "I call on President Mubarak to resign effective immediately."

"There will be difficult days ahead. Many questions about Egypt's future remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt will find those answers. That truth can be seen in the sense of community in the streets. It can be seen in the mothers and fathers embracing soldiers. And it can be seen in the Egyptians who linked arms to protect the national museum -- a new generation protecting the treasures of antiquity; a human chain connecting a great and ancient civilization to the promise of a new day."

Here he is signaling to Americans that this thing is far from over and he has no idea how it will end. And he ends again with praise for the people in the streets, closing gracefully with a reference to Egypt's ancient glory, which is a source of great pride for Egyptians.

"Thank you very much."

No "God Bless America" since this statement was directed as much to a foreign audience as a domestic one.

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By Glenn Kessler  | February 2, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Other Foreign Policy, issue context  
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Why the obligatory "God Bless America" at the end of every speech?

Is it that otherwise, God may forget to bless this "Exceptional" nation? Or is it to remind Her to bless America, and only America; to hell with the rest of the world?

I have seen a bumper sticker on a car recently that said "God Bless the World; no Exceptions".

There are a couple of benedictions that are used in India at the end of ceremonies. One that says "May all people be happy" and another "May all the nationa be happy".

"No "God Bless America" since this statement was directed as much to a foreign audience as a domestic one. "

If that indeed is the case, why not take this singular situation and say "God Bless Egypt"? Why, would that be too impolitic to say, considering that he is already in the running for the 2012 nomination?

Posted by: pKrishna43 | February 2, 2011 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I think most literate, intelligent readers could reason all this out ourselves. Don't be so patronizing, Mr. Kessler.

Posted by: Aquarius1 | February 2, 2011 10:01 AM | Report abuse

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