WASHINGTON — Confronting a building international crisis, President Barack Obama called on Egypt's president to stand down from violence as the White House moved cautiously to advise an important Arab ally facing furious protesters bent on toppling an autocratic regime.
Obama spoke by phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday to deliver a stern message to the head of the government threatened by a rebelling public. Mubarak has promised a better democracy and greater economic opportunity, and "I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words; to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise," Obama said.
"Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people, and suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," Obama said at the White House after speaking with Mubarak in a half-hour phone call initiated by the White House.
"All governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion," Obama said.
The president made his brief but forceful remarks at the end of a tense day of drama during which televisions around the world broadcast images of rioting protesters intent on ending Mubarak's 30-year rule, for many in the country a reign of poverty and repression. Mubarak responded by calling out the military, instituting a curfew that was largely ignored and cutting off cell phone networks and other forms of communication.
Obama insisted those must be switched back on and by Saturday mobile phone services were restored. Internet service, however, appeared to be blocked.
It was already the middle of the night in Cairo when Obama spoke. Not long before, Mubarak had addressed the public for the first time since the protests began. He announced he was firing his government, but he defended the actions of his security forces and did not offer to step down. For many in Egypt that did not go nearly far enough.
Obama said the U.S. has a "close partnership" with Egypt and has cooperated on many issues. But without political, social and economic reforms that the U.S. has long called for, Obama said, "grievances have built up over time." Obama also said that the demonstrators had a responsibility "to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms they seek."
Obama's decision to speak about the crisis in Egypt underscored the enormous U.S. interest at stake — from Israel's security to the importance of the Suez Canal and the safety of thousands of Americans who live and work in Egypt. The State Department issued a warning for Americans to defer all nonessential travel to Egypt. Egypt has been a critical ally in the volatile Middle East since making peace with Israel in 1978.
Since then 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. The White House said Friday that such assistance was now at risk and that the administration might cut the $1.5 billion in annual foreign aid sent to Egypt, depending on Mubarak's response to the demonstrations.
However, U.S. officials came nowhere close to endorsing the protesters' call for Mubarak's ouster.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton 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.
Like Clinton, White House press secretary Robert 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.
Asked about Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure who has been placed under house arrest, Gibbs 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."
Mubarak has long faced calls from U.S. presidents to loosen his grip on the country he has ruled since replacing the assassinated President Anwar Sadat. 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 thousands of documents recently by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
Obama said the U.S. would "continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.