Video: Military gave Mubarak ultimatum

NBC News and news services
updated 2/11/2011 2:28:39 PM ET 2011-02-11T19:28:39

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hailed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's exit from power Friday as a "pivotal moment" for the Middle East and insisted Egypt's democratic transition must be irreversible.

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Biden spoke shortly before President Barack Obama was to step before television cameras at the White House as he weighs the deep uncertainty and huge challenges Washington now faces in dealing with Egypt's potentially volatile power shift.

Follow the latest on Egypt on breakingnews.com

"The transition that's taking place must be an irreversible change and a negotiated path toward democracy," Biden told a college audience in Kentucky after Mubarak handed over power to Egypt's military. "What is at stake in Egypt and across the Middle East is not just about Egypt alone."

Photojournalists report on mood from Tahrir Square

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Higher Military Council that took control of Egypt on Friday, has spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates by phone five times since the crisis began, including as late as Thursday evening.

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Washington walked a fine line since the mass demonstrations erupted, endorsing the democratic aspirations of the protesters but trying not to openly abandon a long-time ally or encourage upheaval that could spill over into other parts of the oil-rich region.

Obama, who has repeatedly pressed for an orderly transition, now confronts the challenge of helping to ensure broad political reform in the Arab world's most populous country while keeping Islamists from ending up with enough power to undermine U.S. interests in the region.

Story: New challenges for U.S.-Egyptian military ties

He will face the test of keeping the power shift in Cairo from unnerving Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel or emboldening foes like Iran and al Qaeda.

Obama, who had struggled to calibrate his response to a popular uprising against Mubarak's long authoritarian rule, had been due to deliver a statement at 3 p.m. EST but it was postponed without explanation.

The Obama administration will now do everything possible to keep intact close ties with the Egyptian military, which relies on the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid it receives annually and is seen as the key to keep the situation from descending into chaos.

Pentagon officials have been tight-lipped about the talks between Tantawi and Gates though the U.S. defense chief has publicly praised Egypt's military for being a stabilizing force during the unrest.

But in private, some U.S. officials, while viewing Tantawi as an ally committed to avoiding another war with Israel, have also depicted him as resistant to reform, according to a 2008 State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks website.

U.S. show of impatience
Mubarak's exit came a day after Obama seemed to rebuke the Egyptian leader for not going far enough in a televised speech in which he ceded some powers to his vice president but defiantly insisted he would stay in office until presidential elections scheduled for September.

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After Obama's show of impatience, it was unclear whether U.S. officials, who have had constant behind-the-scenes dealings with the Egyptian government and military, helped secure Mubarak's decision to go now.

Obama was informed during an Oval Office meeting of Mubarak's decision and then watched on television as crowds erupted in celebration in Cairo's central square.

Video: Obama slammed over tactics in Egypt crisis

U.S. officials have said repeatedly they are entering uncharted waters with Egypt and the broader Middle East and see a long period of uncertainty and volatility.

"This is very good news for Obama given that he and his administration so publicly staked out a position that change should happen now. But it is only the start of a process," said Brian Katulis, Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington and an informal adviser to the White House. "Now the real work has to begin."

Obama's cautious approach has been based on Egypt's strategic importance: a rare Arab state no longer hostile to Israel, the guardian of the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia and a major force against militant Islam in the Middle East.

Story: Analysis: If Mubarak goes, U.S. must reassure allies

"This is a pivotal moment in history," Biden said of Mubarak's departure. "It's a pivotal moment not only in Mideast history, but in history."

U.S lawmakers swiftly welcomed Mubarak's departure.

"I am pleased that President Mubarak has heard and heeded the voice of the Egyptian people, who have called for change. It is crucial that Mubarak's departure be an orderly one and that it leads to true democracy for Egypt, including free, fair and open elections," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to concern in Washington that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest opposition group, might end up with greater clout in Cairo.

Israel is concerned that the next Egyptian government might not be as committed as Mubarak was to their 1979 peace treaty.

"We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations," said Ros-Lehtinen.

On Twitter, Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, said the young people of Egypt were leading the country to democracy.

"Their actions are an inspiration to the world," she said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (18) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Farewell Friday
  2. Image: Protester in Tahrir Square
    Emilio Morenatti / AP
    Slideshow (61) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 3
  3. Image: Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters
    Amr Nabil / AP
    Slideshow (93) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 2
  4. Image: Mohamed ElBaradei
    Khalil Hamra / AP
    Slideshow (83) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 1
  5. Image:
    Mayra Beltran / AP
    Slideshow (17) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - World reacts

Timeline: The rise and fall of Hosni Mubarak

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