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The US response

Obama calls on Mubarak to refrain from violence

By Mark Landler
New York Times / January 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama put Egypt’s embattled leader, Hosni Mubarak, on notice yesterday that he should not use his soldiers and the police in a bloody crackdown on the protests in Egypt, edging away from a close US ally whose cities have erupted in protest.

Addressing the nation from the White House after a day of rage across Egypt, Obama said he called Mubarak and told him “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters’’ and to turn a “moment of volatility’’ into a “moment of promise.’’ Declaring that the protesters have universal rights, he said, “The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people.’’

Obama’s brief remarks came as a blunt reply to Mubarak, who spoke to his own people just an hour before and mixed conciliation with defiance as he dismissed his government but vowed to stay in office to stabilize Egypt.

Faced with images of riot police officers using tear gas and water cannons against protesters, the Obama administration has moved from tentative support for Mubarak to distancing itself from its staunchest Arab ally, saying it would review $1.5 billion in US aid and warning Mubarak that he must confront the grievances of his people.

Obama noted that in Mubarak’s speech, he promised to expand democracy and economic opportunity.

“He has a responsibility to give meaning to those words,’’ Obama said.

He called on Mubarak to open a dialogue with the demonstrators, although he did not go so far as to urge free and fair elections.

Illustrating the delicate balance that the administration faces with Egypt, Obama referred to the joint projects of the two countries. He also urged the demonstrators to “express themselves peacefully.’’

But the firmness of the president’s comments signaled that the crisis in Egypt had passed a “critical turning point,’’ in the words of one senior US official. Regardless of whether Mubarak survives, this official said, the upheaval has transformed Egyptian politics and how the United States will handle a leader long seen as a stable anchor in a turbulent region.

The announcement that the administration would review its aid was the first tangible sign that the United States was keeping Mubarak at arm’s length. The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, declined to give details about the review, except to say that the US “assistance posture’’ would depend on events “now, and in the coming days.’’

The mushrooming protests confront the administration with one of the most nettlesome foreign policy dilemmas it has faced, forcing it to abandon the careful balance that Obama and his predecessors have struck between supporting the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people while reaffirming ties with Mubarak. This same calculation has governed US dealings with other Arab allies led by entrenched autocratic rulers, notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

In each case, the overriding concern is that the same people who are clamoring for change could choose leaders who are hostile to the United States, perhaps even extremists.

Still, standing by Mubarak for fear of what could come after him could lead to “resentment towards the United States that could last another three decades, like Iran,’’ said Martin S. Indyk, a Middle East peace negotiator in the Clinton administration.

Laying out the US dilemma, Indyk said, “If we don’t back Mubarak and the regime falls, and the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of Egypt and breaks the peace treaty with Israel, then it could have dramatic negative ramifications for American interests in the Middle East.’’

The administration also reacted sharply to the Egyptian government’s extraordinary move to shut down the Internet, social networking websites, texting, and other communications.

Obama called on the government to reverse the steps, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described as “unprecedented.’’

US officials tried to call the Egyptian Ministry of Communications for an explanation yesterday, but they were unable to reach anyone on a landline phone, said a senior administration official.

At the White House yesterday afternoon, Obama dropped in on a meeting of his top national security advisers. The group included Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton, and Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser. During that session, Obama decided to call Mubarak.

Also yesterday, the State Department issued a travel alert, warning US citizens to avoid going to Egypt or, if there, to stay in one place.

Officials from the Pentagon were consulting with their Egyptian military counterparts, Gibbs said. The role of the military, officials said, was most likely to be decisive in the coming days.

Senior Egyptian military commanders cut short a visit to the Pentagon on yesterday and were headed to Cairo as the Egyptian Army was deployed to put down protests in the country’s streets, US military officials said.

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