Obama says Egypt faces 'moment of transformation'

Protests in Egypt that appear on the verge of toppling President Hosni Mubarak mark an historical moment for the Middle East, President Obama said Thursday.

"We are watching history unfold," Obama said in remarks at Northern Michigan University. "It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."

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Obama offered no details about U.S. expectations for a transition in Egypt, but the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Mubarak likely will transition most of his constitutional powers to his new vice president. 

Rep. Howard Berman (Cailf.) told The Hill on Thursday the White House has indicated Mubarak might not leave office outright, but will hand most of the legal powers of Egypt's top office to Omar Suleiman.

"Technically, he would still be president, but without" the powers of the presidency spelled out in that nation's constitution, Berman said in a brief interview.

A Berman aide said it remains unclear how much authority Suleiman would receive or what role the powerful Egyptian military might play in the government. Mubarak is exepcted to speak publicly very soon.

Obama was briefed by phone on the situation in Egypt by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon during a flight on Air Force One. 

The president said he would have more to say on Egypt "as this plays out."

But Obama appeared to praise the protesters who have pushed for the change in Egypt, saying "it's young people who have been at the forefront."

"A new generation — your generation — who want their voices heard," Obama said.


If there is a transition in Egypt, it remains to be seen whether new powers there will be friendly to the United States. Many of the demonstrators in Cairo have criticized the U.S. government for backing Mubarak for decades. There are also fears that Islamist political group the Muslim Brotherhood could take power. 

The president said that while the situation in Egypt is still fluid, he wants the protesters in Egypt "to know America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt."

Mubarak has faced weeks of protests in the streets of the capital and outside it, and pressure from President Obama to hasten the government transition. Mubarak said last week that he would step down in September, when elections are scheduled, but he has resisted pressure from the White House to do so "now."

Mubarak warned there would be "chaos" if he were to leave office immediately.

The administration has remained in close consultation with the Egyptian government; Vice President Biden phoned his Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, on Tuesday.

This post was last updated at 1:59 p.m.