WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama called for an "orderly and genuine" transition to democracy in Egypt on Thursday amid reports that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was about to step down.
U.S. intelligence indicated a "strong likelihood" that Mubarak would resign as early as Thursday night, CIA Director Leon Panetta earlier told Congress. Egyptian TV said the embattled president would speak to the nation from his palace in Cairo.
"What is absolutely clear is we are witnessing history unfold," Obama told students at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich. "It's a moment of transformation."
Mubarak was under enormous pressure from protesters pushing for the immediate end of his 29-year hold on power.
Washington officials followed the unfolding drama in Cairo with hopeful expectation for a smooth transition — mixed with concern over the unpredictability of the developments.
"There is no question that what we are seeing happening in Egypt will have tremendous impact," Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee. "If it's done right, it will help us a great deal in trying to promote stability in that part of the world. If it happens wrong, it could create some serious problems for us and for the rest of the world."
Obama said that "the people of Egypt are calling for change, they've turned out in extraordinary numbers and all ages and all walks of life." But especially, Obama said, it was young people "who've been at the forefront" of the demand for change.
"We want those young people, and we want all Egyptians to know, America will do all we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt," he told his youthful audience. Obama was in Michigan to promote plans to widen access to high-speed wireless services.
Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, told The Associated Press in Washington it was "a fluid situation" and "there are indications that something extraordinary is about to happen."
Panetta said he didn't know specifics but it seemed likely that Mubarak would turn over power to his vice president, Omar Suleiman.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan asked Panetta about news reports that Mubarak was poised to relinquish power.
"I got the same information you did, that there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak will step down this evening, which will be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt will take place," the CIA director said.
Egypt's military announced on national television that it had stepped in to "safeguard the country" and assured protesters that Mubarak would meet their demands. That was the strongest indication yet that the longtime leader was leaving.
Panetta, after his congressional testimony, told reporters that, while "we've received indications that he (Mubarak) was going to make these remarks" to announce he was stepping down, "we haven't been able to confirm that he in fact is going to do that, so we're just monitoring the situation right now."
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who appeared with Panetta before the House committee, said the terror syndicate al-Qaida and the Islamic hardline groups Hamas and Hezbollah were also paying close attention to the unfolding events in Egypt.
"They are watching and observing this just as we are and are looking for opportunities perhaps to exploit or further their interests," Clapper said.
In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that the one constant amid the turmoil in the region was the United States' unwavering support for Israel.
Steinberg also sought to quell talk of divisions within the administration over Egypt. He said the U.S. government has said publicly and privately that a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy must begin without delay.