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Obama urges Egypt to heed protests, pursue reforms

By Joby Warrick and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 12:00 AM

President Obama on Friday strongly defended the rights of Egyptian protesters who have taken to the streets to demand political change, cautioning the government of President Hosni Mubarak to avoid violence and adopt "concrete steps that advance the rights" of the country's citizens.

Obama's televised remarks capped a day of warnings from his administration - including a threat to review the aid package Egypt receives from the United States - that reflected the urgency of the crisis facing America's most powerful ally in the Arab world.

Speaking after Mubarak announced that his cabinet would resign but gave no indication that he himself would step down, Obama called on Egyptian authorities to stop blocking access to the Internet and other social media used by anti-government groups to coordinate protests. Obama did not say that Mubarak should leave office or hold elections, but he repeatedly emphasized that the rights of Egypt's citizens should be respected.

"We've also been clear that there must be reform - political, social and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people," Obama said. "In the absence of these reforms, grievances have built up over time."

Obama said he telephoned Mubarak late Friday after the Egyptian leader promised reforms in a televised address. "I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words," Obama said.

The remarks were his most forceful statement on the unrest in Egypt since major protests erupted Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs warned that some of Egypt's $1.5 billion U.S. aid package could be in jeopardy if Egyptian security forces used violence to quell demonstrations. The warning came as administration officials sought to ratchet up the pressure on Mubarak against the backdrop of escalating violence between police and protesters in Cairo and at least two other cities.

"The security personnel in Egypt need to refrain from violence, the government needs to turn the Internet and social networking sites back on," Gibbs told reporters at a White House news conference.

Asked about U.S. aid to Egypt - the second-largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance, after Israel - Gibbs said: "We will be reviewing our assistance posture."

The suggestion of possible cuts was the most tangible effort by the White House to influence Mubarak's actions as the 82-year-old president confronts the most serious challenge to his leadership in nearly three decades.

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed sympathy for the concerns of demonstrators who are demanding economic and political reforms. Clinton said reform is "absolutely critical to the well-being of Egypt."

"These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away," Clinton said at a news conference.

Obama received briefings on events in Egypt throughout the day, White House officials said. "We are monitoring a very fluid situation," Gibbs said.

Gibbs sidestepped repeated questions from reporters about the possibility that Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, might be pushed from power.

Economic aid to Egypt is perhaps the most powerful leverage available to a U.S. administration that faces limited options for directly influencing the rapidly changing events. The current assistance of $1.5 billion includes more than $1.3 billion for Egypt's military.

Despite the size of the aid package, both the current White House and previous administrations have largely failed to encourage Egyptian officials to allow economic and political reforms.

"We have always been limited in our options," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "We tried to intervene in the last election, and it didn't work. We have put pressure on the Egyptians on human rights, and we tried to get them interested in economic reforms. None of it succeeded."

Shortly after assuming the presidency, Obama chose to make Cairo the setting for a major policy speech seeking to improve relations with the Muslim world that had been strained by U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afterward, the administration sought to improve relations with Mubarak by limiting the number of public confrontations over human rights issues, according to leaked State Department cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. At the same time, the administration continued to press for political reforms in private meetings, according to the cables, which were first described in a report late Thursday on the New York Times' Web site.

While the outcome of the unrest in Egypt could have enormous implications for regional security, longtime Middle Eastern analysts said there was little the administration can do to directly affect events.

"What strikes me is how irrelevant we have become," said Robert Grenier, a retired CIA officer who spent 24 years specializing the Middle East and South Asia and now is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial and strategic advisory firm. "The people behind the current protests in Tunisia and Egypt certainly don't look to the United States for any kind of support, moral or otherwise."

In his televised remarks Friday, Obama alluded to his Cairo speech, recalling his admonition to the region's governments to "maintain power through consent, not coercion."

"Surely there will be difficult days to come, but the United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people," he said.

warrickj@washpost.com baconp@washpost.com

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