By Bridget Johnson and Sam Youngman - 01/28/11 11:49 PM EST
President Obama and administration officials struck a cautious balance Friday between backing a longtime U.S. ally and supporting pro-democracy demonstrators as violent protests against the regime in Egypt spiraled out of control.
After a day of wondering whether President Obama would speak on the crisis, the commander in chief spoke to reporters in the state dining room Friday evening, addressing the close relationship between Egypt and the U.S. but stressing "we've also been clear that there must be reform."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years, appeared on state television late Friday to say that he'd dismissed the government and promised to press ahead with reforms dealing with jobs, poverty, political freedom and education. Appearing defiant in his remarks, he cautioned against unrest and defended the heavy-handed response of security forces.
Reporters grilled White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs Friday afternoon on why Obama hadn't yet called Mubarak, but after the Egyptian ruler's TV appearance Obama called him for a 30-minute conversation.
"I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words," Obama said. "Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."
Obama said that the U.S. would continue "to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people" and support the government and its citizens in engaging in "meaningful dialogue" to enact reforms.
"Governments have an obligation to respond to their citizens... it's certainly true in the Arab world, where a new generation of citizens have the right to be heard," he said.
The White House is threatening to cut off billions of dollars in aid to the country if the situation does not improve, with Gibbs saying that officials are "reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days."
"There is a responsibility that is had by the government of Egypt, regardless of the role that they have played internationally or regionally over the course of any number of years," he said.
Obama picked Cairo as the location for his 2009 address to the Muslim world from a predominantly Muslim nation. An ouster of Mubarak could set the stage for the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, now a banned political party, to have greater influence in the nation.
That could turn Egypt, where Islam is already the national religion, into more of an Islamic state, likely resulting in further tensions with the country's minority Coptic Christians and all-out strife with Israel.
Egypt was the first Arab country to officially recognize Israel, and has maintained a terse peace with the Jewish state since the 1979 peace treaty following the Camp David Accords.
An Israeli official told Time magazine that the crisis is regarded as no less than "an earthquake in the Middle East."
"I am further concerned that certain extremist elements inside Egypt will manipulate the current situation for nefarious ends," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement.
Members of Congress have been quick to speak out on behalf of the demonstrators.
"For far too long the democratic hopes of the Egyptian people have been suppressed. Their cries for freedom can no longer be silenced," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
"The U.S. and other responsible nations must work together to support the pursuit of freedom, democracy, and human rights in Egypt and throughout the world," she added.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) urged Egyptian protesters to make their grievances known peacefully.
"I hope the people of Egypt will continue to remember the lessons and legacy of peaceful protesters from Gandhi to Dr. King and to exercise their right to be heard in that tradition, which will rally peaceful people everywhere in solidarity," Kerry said Friday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) condemned Egypt for blocking Internet access. "A free and open internet is essential to ensuring the universal rights of the people of Egypt, and of all peoples, to freedom of expression, confidence in the rule of law, and government that is transparent and accountable to the citizens," he said in a statement.
Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), co-founder of the Internet Freedom Caucus, urged Western communications companies to defy orders from Egypt's government to shut down their services.
"Have some courage. These international companies really ought to know better," he said in an interview with The Hill. "They should do the right thing."
Gibbs joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in calling for restraint both from the protesters and the government, but he said the protesters have "legitimate grievances that have festered for so long and need to be addressed by the Egyptian government immediately."
These include freedom of assembly, freedom of the press including Internet freedoms, and widespread concerns about vote rigging in past elections.
"Those are discussions that are had at every opportunity when anybody
from our government meets with the Egyptian government," Gibbs said. "When the
president last spoke with President Mubarak, he brought these concerns
up. So when we spoke in Cairo, these concerns were brought up."
He said the issue "is not about picking a person or picking the people of a country."
"This will be solved by the Egyptian people," Gibbs said.
Clinton's remarks were widely watched to see if the administration would offer a staunch rebuke of the Egyptian government, but she avoided sharp criticism and stressed the need for reform and cooperation.
"The Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make
these grievances go away," she said.
Vice President Joe Biden struck the most conciliatory tone on PBS' "Newshour" Thursday, saying that Mubarak is not a dictator and shouldn't step aside in the face of mounting protests.
"Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel ... I would not refer to him as a dictator," Biden said.
But when asked if countries will be caught up in a "domino effect" from Tunisia like that which swept across the former Soviet states, Biden said no.
"I wouldn't compare the two," he said. "A lot of these nations are very dissimilar. They're similar in the sense that they're Arab nations, dissimilar in the circumstance."
In addition to Egypt, the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who had taken office in a bloodless coup and held the post since 1987, has sparked demonstrations in Yemen demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down. The White House has frequently noted its contact with Saleh, who has ruled the most impoverished of the Arab nations for 32 years, and cooperation from his government in fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Moahmed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient seen by many as the strongest opposition to Mubarak, returned to Cairo this week to join the protests but was placed under house arrest.
Gibbs was asked Thursday if the administration saw ElBaradei as a "viable alternative" to Mubarak, but refused to "get into different personalities."
Mubarak has been seen as grooming his younger son, Gamal, to take over as president one day. But Gamal Mubarak, his wife and his daughter reportedly left Cairo for London on Wednesday.
Obama has received a number of briefings on the situation, including a 40 minute session in the Oval Office Friday morning.
Gibbs said that deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough convened a deputies committee meeting in the Situation Room early Friday afternoon.
In that meeting, participants heard from U.S. ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, and that briefing was forwarded to Obama.
John Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations during the
George W. Bush administration, said Friday there is "too much risk of mushy statements that just make things worse" on the part of the White House as the situation rapidly evolves.
"In terms of how the administration has handled it, I think the reaction has been confused," Bolton said after a speech at the 2011 Congressional Defense & Foreign Policy Forum. "Although in fairness, I will say nobody saw this coming. So I think that it may not be entirely justifiable, but it's understandable that the initial reaction would be confused."
Protesters waved Egyptian flags outside the White House on Friday, and a noontime demonstration was planned outside of the Egyptian embassy on Saturday.
This story was updated from an earlier version