Tightening the screws on Mubarak

At last, the Obama administration has begun to tighten the screws on President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has just served notice that American aid — including military assistance — will depend on the “concrete reforms” of the Egyptian government. Gibbs spoke at the end of a tumultuous day that saw unprecedented mass protests by Egyptians demanding the removal of Mubarak and his family viciously put down by security forces until the army was brought out onto the streets.

“Violence should stop immediately and grievances should be addressed,” said Gibbs. The message has been conveyed to visiting Egyptian generals by the Pentagon, and through the State Department’s diplomatic channels. Given the $1.5 billion that is given every year to Egypt, America has a legitimate stake in the outcome of the crisis. But bizarrely, President Obama has not spoken personally to the Egyptian leader, who has not addressed his people since the unrest escalated.

The administration’s diplomatic shuffle has been evolving since the beginning of the week, when Hillary Clinton said the Mubarak government was “stable.” On Tuesday evening, President Obama did not even identify Egypt in his State of the Union address when he said that the U.S. stands with the people of Tunisia and with all people striving for democracy. He went further in a YouTube interview on Wednesday when he spoke for the first time about the “legitimate grievances” of the Egyptian people and called for reform but still refrained from any threat.

Clinton earlier today repeated the message urging immediate reform and said the administration is “deeply concerned” about the violence. There was still no “or else.” That has now happened, albeit in a very careful, calibrated way. It remains to be seen whether Mubarak is listening.