White House walks line as Egypt protests rage

President Obama wants to see change in Egypt’s government, but his press secretary on Monday stopped short of calling for the ouster of embattled President Hosni Mubarak.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs repeated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's weekend call for an “orderly transition” to a more open and inclusive government decided by the Egyptian people. But Gibbs was adamant that the U.S. will not put its thumb on the scales either way.

“It is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people are met by the Egyptian government,” Gibbs said at his daily briefing. “We’re not picking between those in the street and those in the government.”

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Mubarak’s decision to call for the mass resignation of government officials and his appointment of Egypt’s security chief to vice president has done little to satisfy either the protesters or the White House.

“This is not about appointments,” Gibbs said. “It's about actions.”

Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets again on Monday, and Egypt’s army announced for the first time that it would not fire on them. Organizers of the protest promised the biggest demonstrations yet against Mubarak would take place on Tuesday.

NBC reported Monday that more than 2,400 Americans have contacted U.S. officials to seek evacuation flights from Egypt.

A few voices in Congress said it is time for Mubarak to leave office.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.), a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Mubarak to resign and said the U.S. should suspend aid to the nation. Ackerman also suggested it was time for the White House to take a tougher line with Mubarak.

“While initially it may have been prudent for the Obama administration to walk that rhetorical tightrope to keep the confidence of regional leaders, that moment has surely passed,” said Ackerman. “By their passion, courage and sacrifice in the streets, Egyptians have proven beyond question that they are taking their government back and that the Mubarak era of rule is ending.”

Ackerman said the U.S. should cut off its aid to Egypt during the transition from Mubarak’s rule, but Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said assistance programs should continue. 

Berman said the U.S. must be prepared to assist the Egyptian government and opposition leaders in entering a constructive dialogue. "So long as the Egyptian military plays a constructive role in bringing about a democratic transition, the United States should also remain committed to our ongoing assistance programs for Egypt, both military and civilian," he said in a statement.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), in a post on The Hill's Congress Blog, also said it was time for Mubarak to go, "but not without an exit strategy that prevents the government from failing and leaving the door open to extremists."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to answer a question about whether the U.S. should suspend foreign aid to Egypt, deferring to the White House on the matter. Gibbs on Friday had suggested the aid could be reviewed.

Reid insisted Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber support the response to the crisis from the White House.

“The White House is totally on top of this,” said Reid on a conference call with reporters.

Reid, who received a briefing Sunday from William Burns, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, said that Republican colleagues have also told him they support the administration’s actions.

Reid publicly urged Egypt’s government not to restrict its citizens from accessing the Internet or using cell phones.

Gibbs said the U.S. is not calling for a change in leadership, stating that “we're calling for a change in the way that country works.”

“I do believe orderly transition means change,” Gibbs said at one point. But he then added that change only refers to universal human rights, like the freedom to assemble — not necessarily a change in leadership. “That is not for our country or our government to determine,” Gibbs said.

The Pentagon is also keeping an eye on Egypt, and the actions of that country’s military.

Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s defense minister, and Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense chief, to discuss the Egyptian unrest, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Monday.  

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by phone on Sunday with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen's spokesman, on Monday.

“Gen. Enan gave the chairman an update on events in his country, and the chairman expressed his appreciation for the continued professionalism of the Egyptian military,” Kirby said. “Both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue, and they pledged to stay in touch.”

Obama continued to receive briefings on the situation on Monday morning, and a deputies committee meeting on the matter has been established as a daily meeting, Gibbs said.

Gibbs and other U.S. officials on Monday continued to call for both sides to refrain from violence, and Gibbs said the White House is “thus far pleased at the restraint that has taken place.”

This story was posted at 3:51 p.m. and updated at 5:55 p.m.

— John T. Bennett and Russell Berman contributed to this story.