Reaction to Mubarak's speech

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: Nicholas Burns is a former top US diplomat. He was under Secretary of State for Political Affairs under President George W. Bush-- held many other positions as well. I asked the ambassador earlier today for his reaction to Mubarak's speech.

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think it's a significant step that he's going to transfer some of his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman. But it's not going to be enough in my judgement because the tens of thousands of young people, demonstrating peacefully in Tahrir Square and other places of Egypt, are going to see this as more of the sameââ?¬"a continuation of an authoritarian government. It's not the kind of change they think they have been advocating for. And it makes it much more complicated, I think, both for the Egyptians to conduct a progressive transition that actually has a possibility of opening up the political system for change. And it makes it more complicated for countries like the United States because we're still going to be in this position of trying to encourage behind the scenes this authoritarian government to change, and to speak in support of the people in the streets who want change. And so we're at the very beginning in this seventeenth day of protest of a very long drama in Egypt.

MULLINS: What were the alternatives though? I mean, what could have happened that would have ensured, as President Obama said earlier today, a genuine change of leadership? Because, if there was a wholesale change aside from Suleiman, who you say is more of the same-- the Vice President-- what could there have been that would be secure and stable, something that the protestors would've wanted and something that even the White House would have wanted?

BURNS: Well I think the White House and the State Department would have wanted a less ambiguous situationââ?¬"a clean break from the thirty years of Mubarak's rule towards something that holds more promise to bring Egypt back to stability. The country has been in utter turmoil for three weeks. Tomorrow is one of the days of protest, it being Friday in Egypt, and I would assume that very large cut crowds will congregate. And you're already seeing in the images and the voices of Tahrir Square that people are crying "illegitimate," and so I think for the White House this is not as clean and certain of a situation as they would have hoped for. But they're going to have to react to this and I think you'll still see an American administration trying to very skillfully balance these competing objectives. The United States needs to support change and democracy in the Arab world. But we need to support it in a productive, stable way so that our interests but also as importantly, or more importantly, the interests of the Egyptians can be can be protected. You don't want the transition to be violent; you don't want it to be turbulent; you don't want it to stop the economy from functioning. And if you have an inconclusive decision from Mubarak, which is what I've been listening to for the last hour, then I think it makes the situation even more complicated than it's been perhaps over the past week.

MULLINS: But let me ask you this: If Mubarak had stepped down, would that not also have been inconclusive since there is, aside from Suleiman, no other heir apparent? I mean, isn't this in a way stability, even if it's not what the parties and the protests would have hoped for?

BURNS: Well, you know, if we put our best- if we maybe look at the best- what is the best thing that could result from this situation? I think it is that Mubarak has left permanently perhaps he won't come back; he won't try to assert presidential powers. There has been a true, if de facto, transfer of power from Mubarak to Suleiman; and perhaps Omar Suleiman, backed by the military, can now begin a transition that begins to treat more seriously the demands of the people of Egypt that have been expressed, I think, very clearly over the last three weeks. That's the best case scenario that I can picture coming out of today's events.

MULLINS: Nick Burns, the President Mubarak said today that he's not looking for any kind of international intervention, advice, dictates. What is, what kind of position is the United States in right now? You have worked for several presidents. President Obama--what kind of position is he in and what, how active could he and do you think should he be?

BURNS: You know, Lisa, I think this is about as complicated a foreign policy crisis that I've seen in many, many years because the United States has very important interests, vital interests in Egypt. Think about the Peace Treaty now more than thirty years old between Egypt and Israel. Think about the fact that Egypt has been with us in countering Al-Qaeda and radical terrorist groups, and the fact that Egypt, the largest Arab country, is the most important building block in preventing an Iranian domination military of the Middle East. If you think about it that way, the United States has a lot riding on the outcome of this transition, this drama, in Egypt. But on the other hand, since our founding of the country, we have been Jefferson's empire of liberty. We have been the country that asserts human rights, and quite rightly so--and democracy, and freedoms; and so we have to stand with the people in the streets who want a better life. That's a very difficult balance for any president. I think that President Obama has handled himself very well throughout these chaotic past three weeks. I think he's made the right calls. He's put us in a position to be influential behind the scenes with the government and during the transition. And yet, in my view, he's also clearly indicated that he wishes to support a transition to democracy. So I think the president's put us in a good position. But I think that's just got a lot more difficult and will be more difficult over the next couple of weeks.

MULLINS: Alright and we will talk to you again, I'm sure, former US Ambassador Nick Burns now with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Thank you very much.

BURNS: Thank you Lisa.