As thousands of angry protesters defied a curfew in Egyptian cities, Washington kept up pressure for Mubarak to heed President Barack Obama’s calls for change and take seriously a US threat to review massive aid to Cairo.
The Obama administration is performing a delicate balancing act, trying to avoid abandoning Mubarak — an important US strategic ally of 30 years — while supporting protesters who seek broader political rights and also demand his ouster. But Washington has limited options to influence the situation.
‘The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,’ State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a message on Twitter.com after Mubarak fired his government.
‘President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action,’ he added, echoing Obama’s call on Friday for Mubarak to embrace a new political dynamic.
Crowley’s comments came before Mubarak picked intelligence chief and confidant Omar Suleiman as vice president, a post Mubarak had never filled in three decades of rule. It was Mubarak’s first hint at a succession plan.
There was no immediate US reaction to the appointment of Suleiman, who has played a prominent role in Egypt’s relations with the United States and its ally Israel.
Obama’s top aides huddled for two hours at the White House to discuss the Egyptian crisis in a meeting chaired by national security adviser Tom Donilon, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden joining in by telephone.
The US administration was caught off guard by the political upheaval that has rocked the Middle East in recent days, from Egypt to Tunisia to Lebanon to Yemen.
‘The people of Egypt no longer accept the status quo. They are looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform,’ Crowley said. ‘With protesters still on the streets of Egypt, we remain concerned about the potential for violence and again urge restraint on all sides.’
The United States has repeatedly called for non-violence in Egypt, where unrest continued for a fifth day despite Mubarak having ordered the army to the streets. At least 74 people have been killed during the week.
Obama spoke directly to Mubarak on Friday and said he told him to undertake sweeping reforms, while the White House made clear that $1.5 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of it miliary assistance, is at stake.
Obama said he pushed Mubarak to fulfill his pledges of greater democracy and economic freedom shortly after the Egyptian president gave a televised speech in which he dismissed his Cabinet in response to the protests.
Egypt’s crisis poses a dilemma for the United States. Mubarak, 82, has been a close partner of Washington for decades and has cited the danger of Islamic militancy in part as justification for his long autocratic rule.
Egypt plays an important role in Middle East peacemaking — it was the first of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel — and is also seen by Washington as a crucial counterweight to Iran’s regional clout. But human rights groups have accused successive US administrations of being too tolerant of Egyptian rights abuses.
From the US perspective, the worst-case scenario in Egypt’s crisis would be the rise of an Islamist government potentially aligned with Iran. But so far there has been no sign of Muslim fundamentalism driving the protest movement.
In Washington, dozens of people protested peacefully outside the Egyptian Embassy. ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Hosni Mubarak has to go,’ they chanted, while waving signs that said ‘Down with the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship’ and ‘Mubarak out.’
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