By Joby Warrick and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:03 AM
The Obama administration, faced suddenly with a wave of Middle East turbulence stretching from Beirut to Cairo to Tunis, sought to strike a balance Wednesday by appealing to governments and activists for calm while also embracing democratic ideals that have sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets.
The latest White House appeal, in a statement issued after the Tuesday's State of the Union speech, called on Egypt's embattled government to exercise restraint after a day of clashes between police and demonstrators. The government of President Hosni Mubarak banned further protests after three people were killed in skirmishes with police in Cairo.
"We urge all parties to refrain from using violence, and expect the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully," the White House said in the statement. It added that Egypt's government - a close U.S. ally and recipient of billions of dollars annually in American aid - "has an important opportunity" to pursue political and economic reforms.
"We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly," it said.
Only sporadic reports of disturbances were reported on Wednesday as protesters largely heeded government warnings to stay off the streets. Meanwhile, authorities in Tunis and Beirut braced for new outbreaks of unrest following days of anti-government protests in those cities. The Associated Press quoted Tunisia's justice minister as saying that 11,000 prisoners had escaped the country's jails during recent rioting there.
President Obama did not specifically mention Egypt in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but he clearly signaled U.S. support for democratic reforms in a region that has been dominated for decades by autocratic regimes - many of which have been close allies of the United States.
Referring to the protests in Tunisia, Obama said: "The will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator."
"The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," Obama said to applause.
The recent wave of protests comes at a time when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other administration officials have been publicly prodding Middle Eastern governments to end political repression and address social and economic injustices that are at the root of much of the recent unrest.
On Tuesday, Clinton said the administration supports "the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people," but she also voiced confidence in the ability of Egypt's leaders to respond to the new crisis.
"Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," she said.
The State Department, in a statement late Tuesday, said the administration was closely monitoring events in Egypt and remains a "partner of Egypt and the Egyptian people."
"We want to see reform occur, in Egypt and elsewhere, to create greater political, social and economic opportunity consistent with people's aspirations," the statement said.