White House seeks end to violence against protesters

The White House said the United States deplores and condemns the violence in Egypt as thousands of supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak battled in Cairo's main square. (Feb. 2)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 4:00 PM

The White House Wednesday condemned the violence against protesters in Egypt as "outrageous and deplorable" and suggested that it may have been orchestrated by President Hosni Mubarak's government.

"Obviously, if any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. He reiterated Obama's public call Tuesday evening, communicated directly to Mubarak in a telephone call, that "the time for a transition has come, and that time is now."

As events moved quickly in Egypt, where the massive protests that were peaceful Tuesday turned violent as dark fell on Wednesday, the administration struggled to stay abreast. U.S. military leaders with contacts in Egypt's officer corps worked the telephones to find out why the army had not forcefully intervened when apparent pro-Mubarak activists moved against those still occupying Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and to urge them to quell the clashes.

As an high-level interagency group convened for crisis consultations at the White House, officials were examining the complicated web of U.S. aid programs in Egypt to determine where leverage might best be used.

While Obama on Tuesday predicted "difficult days ahead" in Egypt, the White House seemed taken aback by the swift turn of events on the ground Wednesday. "We're watching those events," Gibbs said. "We're planning for those events."

"Obviously...a considerable amount of staff time has been spent on this," he said. "Some of the president's time, obviously, has been dedicated to watching, taking note of and responding to the events...what we're watching is history being made."

The question was the extent to which the administration was actually able to influence and guide those events. The special administration envoy sent to Cairo over the weekend, retired diplomat Frank G. Wisner, was asked to stay in Egypt and continue conversations with Mubarak and other officials.

The U.S. military has also begun tallying what a senior official called its "assets and capabilities" in the region in case a more robust evacuation of American diplomats and citizens in Egypt became necessary. On Monday, the State Department began operating charter flights for voluntary departures and on Tuesday it ordered all diplomatic families and non-essential personnel to leave the country.

Gibbs also said that Obama had telephoned Jordanian King Abdullah II late Tuesday. As unrest has spread across the region, Abdullah fired his cabinet and pledged reforms. But some sources close to the situation in Jordan worried that newly appointed officials there were unlikely to take firm steps toward increased political freedom.

In brief public remarks at the White House Tuesday evening, Obama was clearly frustrated by Mubarak's announced intention to retain his hold on power until elections later this year. He said he had told Mubarak in a telephone conversation that a transition to representative government "must begin now."

Obama made no mention of Mubarak's agreement earlier in the day not to stand for re-election. Instead, he said he had told the Egyptian president that this was a "moment of transformation" in Egypt and that "the status quo is not sustainable."

Obama's message appeared carefully calibrated to avoid publicly calling for Mubarak to stand down, while making clear he should stand aside. Administration officials say they are seeking a transitional government, with or without Mubarak as its titular head, formed by representative reform leaders and backed by the Egyptian army that will address legitimate grievances, restore stability and plan for a free election.

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