WASHINGTON >> Its allies across the Arab world shaken by popular anger, the United States sharpened its criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s teetering regime and expressed outrage over violence against protesters, declaring that its once-close partner should set a brisk course for new elections.
President Barack Obama began his remarks at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast with pointed hopes for better days ahead: “We pray that the violence in Egypt will end and the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized.”
The administration’s call for an immediate end to three decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt coincides with American hopes that reforms in Jordan and Yemen could stave off similar revolt. It represents something of a dual approach for the Obama administration, which has gradually shed its support for the 82-year-old Mubarak while looking to shore up its other Arab friends facing much of the same resentment if not yet imminent revolution.
“We want to see free, fair and credible elections,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. He stressed that keeping presidential elections in September or advancing the timeframe was entirely up to Egyptians and that the process should not be so hasty that it leaves legitimate players out of the process, but he added, “The sooner that can happen, the better.”
“Now means now,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said of the need for an immediate transition, repeating that continued aid to Egypt would be influenced by the government’s response to the crisis.
A day after Obama pressed Mubarak to loosen his three-decade grip on power immediately, clashes between protesters and pro-government supporters Wednesday further alienated Egypt’s besieged government from its longtime patron, the United States.
The administration decried the fighting that started when several thousand Mubarak supporters, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, attacked anti-government protesters. Demonstrators dragged some of the attackers to the ground and beat them bloody, and the two sides rained stones and bottles down on each other.
Crowley called the assailants “thugs.” Obama “found the images outrageous and deplorable,” Gibbs said. The administration did not accuse Mubarak of orchestrating the clashes but said his government should show restraint.
“If any of the violence is instigated by the government it should stop immediately,” Gibbs added. Protesters claimed plainclothes police were among the attackers, but he declined to assign blame.
On Thursday, Crowley drew attention to increasing attacks on foreign reporters covering the upheaval. “There is a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo and interfere with their reporting,” he said in a Twitter post. “We condemn such actions.”
The administration’s comments aim to keep the pressure on Mubarak amid fears that the Egyptian government was trying to outlast the protesters’ calls for democratic change with cosmetic changes that don’t meet the need for real reform. They echoed Obama’s call for change to “begin now” after Mubarak announced he would not run for re-election.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanded in a telephone conversation with Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, that the government investigate the events and bring those responsible to account. She condemned the violence, Crowley reported.
“We don’t know who unleashed these thugs on the streets of Cairo,” he said, but called it a clear attempt to silence Egyptian voices of dissent. “The use of violence to intimidate the Egyptian people must stop.”
The day of strife in Egypt underscored the unsure post-Mubarak future for the country. His declaration not to run again was accompanied by plans to shepherd the political changeover from his 30-year reign. But hundreds of thousands of Egyptians continued to demonstrate, determined to chase him from office.
Despite coming down increasingly harder in favor of the protesters, the U.S. was still keen to promote an ordered transition to safeguard Egypt’s status as a powerful purveyor of American influence in the Middle East, from Arab-Israeli peace talks to countering Iran and fighting terrorism. Still, the administration would not join the chorus calling for Mubarak’s prompt resignation, offering a shred of support for a leader who has long been loyal to the United States.
In contrast to the sharp tone on Egypt, the administration cautiously praised reforms in Yemen by another pro-Western president. Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged not to stay on beyond his current term in an attempt to head off his country’s version of the pan-Arab unrest sparked last month by the Tunisian protesters who overthrew their president.
Crowley welcomed Saleh’s “positive statements” about including opposition elements in a reform process after three decades in control of his country, which has become a main battleground against al-Qaida. Saleh is seen as a weak but increasingly important partner of the United States, allowing American drone strikes on al-Qaida targets and stepping up counterterrorism cooperation.
“Just as we’ve seen in Egypt, it is important for governments across the region … to follow statements with actions,” Crowley said.
The United States also was keeping a close watch on developments in Jordan, the only Arab country beside Egypt to have concluded a peace agreement with Israel. Jordan’s powerful Muslim opposition has urged King Abdullah II’s newly appointed prime minister to step down.
But State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was looking forward to working with Abdullah’s new government and prime minister. Recognizing the Middle Eastern country’s steps toward better democracy, such as allowing monitors at November’s primary elections, he said the U.S. would continue to raise the need for greater openness and participation in the country’s governance.
Still, the calls for greater democracy were not without peril for the United States, which backtracked under President George W. Bush on an aggressive pursuit of Middle East elections after Hamas won a Palestinian vote and radical groups made gains elsewhere.
In Egypt, the dilemma concerns the Muslim Brotherhood, which has presented the most organized opposition to Mubarak and which rejects much of the U.S. agenda in the region. Israel sees the group as a threat. Asked if the U.S. saw the Muslim Brotherhood as part of Egypt’s new democratic equation, Crowley struggled for a response.
“We do not have a favorite candidate or candidates. We are not going to anoint a successor to President Mubarak,” he said. But he acknowledged that the Brotherhood was a “fact of life in Egypt.”
“They are highly organized,” he said. “If they choose to participate and respect the democratic process,” then they can play a role in Egypt’s transition to democracy. But he added that no U.S. officials have met with members of the group.
In addition to Clinton’s conversation with Suleiman, Crowley said Obama’s envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, held meetings with Mubarak and Suleiman earlier this week. Wisner left Egypt for Washington on Wednesday.
A senior administration official said Wisner was returning because it was clear he had accomplished all he could with the Egyptian leadership. It was unclear how far Wisner sought to push Mubarak, but the U.S. has sought an end to 30 years of an emergency law in the country that gives police wide scope to detain people.