WASHINGTON (AP) — Stepping up pressure on a stalwart but flawed Arab ally, the Obama administration bluntly informed Egypt Friday that billions of dollars in U.S. aid may be cut, depending on authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak's response to anti-government street protests rocking Cairo and other cities.
With enormous U.S. interests in the Middle East at stake, from Israel's security to the Suez Canal and the safety of thousands of Americans who live and work in Egypt, administration officials led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered stern warnings to Egyptian leaders to use restraint in dealing with demonstrators and to embrace broad reforms.
President Barack Obama was being continually briefed on the situation but had not tried to contact Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
In Cairo, Mubarak announced on television that he was sacking his government and would form a new one that would accelerate reforms. But he gave no indication that he would leave office as the protesters were demanding, and he said the law must be respected. He had earlier ordered the military to join the police and other security forces in restoring order.
Before he spoke, the White House announced that the roughly $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance that the U.S. provides to Egypt each year would be reviewed in light of protests, partly inspired by a popular uprising that toppled Tunisia's president, escalate rapidly over the past four days.
The State Department issued a warning for Americans to defer all non-essential travel to Egypt.
Clinton said Mubarak should seize the moment to enact the long-called-for economic, political and social reforms that the protesters want. She said authorities must respect the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of speech, assembly and expression.
"We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces," Clinton said. She also appealed to the protesters to be peaceful and said the government should restore access to the Internet and social media sites.
She sidestepped a question on whether the United States believed Mubarak was finished, but she said the U.S. wanted to work as a partner with the country's people and government to help realize reform in a peaceful manner. That underscored concerns that extremist elements might seek to take advantage of a political vacuum left by a sudden change in leadership.
At the White House, Gibbs said "violence is not the response" to the demands for greater freedoms. He said what happens in Egypt will be up to the Egyptian people but made clear the U.S. has grave concerns.
The calls by U.S. officials for the government of Egypt to ease its reaction to the demonstrations was the latest response along those lines by the administration, struggling to keep abreast of a growing crisis inside a nation that has long been an ally in Middle East peace-making efforts, yet also has long denied basic rights to its own people.
Asked about U.S. aid to Egypt, Gibbs said the review would include both military and civilian assistance. Since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1978, the U.S. has plowed billions into the country to help it modernize its armed forces, and to strengthen regional security and stability. The U.S. has provided Egypt with F-16 jet fighters, as well as tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, anti-aircraft missile batteries, aerial surveillance aircraft and other equipment.
While the White House spokesman was emphatic in his calls for Mubarak and his government to abandon violence, he was less forceful on other issues.
Asked about Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure who has been placed under house arrest, he said, "This is an individual who is a Nobel laureate" and has worked with Obama. "These are the type of actions that the government has a responsibility to change."
Like Clinton, Gibbs would not address Mubarak's future directly but said "we are watching a situation that obviously changes day to day and we will continue to watch and make preparations for a whole host of scenarios."
He also suggested contingency plans had been made for the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, should that become necessary.
Mubarak has long faced calls from U.S. presidents to loosen his grip on the country he has ruled for more than three decades. But he has seen past U.S.-backed reforms in the region as a threat, wrote Ambassador Margaret Scobey in a May 19, 2009, memo to State Department officials in Washington.
"We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world. He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists," Scobey wrote in the memo, among those released recently by WikiLeaks. "Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued."
Senior lawmakers expressed growing unease with the developments, which could affect their deliberations on future assistance to Egypt.
Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Egypt's leaders must step back from the brink as Mubarak called in the military to help quell the protests that continued into the night, spreading in defiance of a curfew and attempts by police and security forces to break them up.
"In the final analysis, it is not with rubber bullets and water cannons that order will be restored," Kerry said. "President Mubarak has the opportunity to quell the unrest by guaranteeing that a free and open democratic process will be in place when the time comes to choose the country's next leader later this year."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the protests were a sign that the Egyptian people's "cries for freedom can no longer be silenced." She said she was troubled by the "heavy-handed" government response.
"I am further concerned that certain extremist elements inside Egypt will manipulate the current situation for nefarious ends," she said.
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