Video: Obama: Mubarak 'must deliver on promise'

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/28/2011 7:25:29 PM ET 2011-01-29T00:25:29

Increasing the pressure on Egypt's leaders, President Barack Obama said Friday that the government should refrain from using violence against protesters and his administration threatened to reduce foreign aid depending on President Hosni Mubarak's response.

"Surely, there will be difficult days to come, but the United States will 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," Obama said he told the long-time leader in a phone call from the White House.

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The president made his comments on television shortly after he and Mubarak spoke.

The conversation followed closely on a middle-of-the-night TV speech in which Mubarak announced in Cairo that he was sacking his government to form a new one that would accelerate reforms. At the same time, Mubarak said, violence by protesters would not be tolerated.

Mubarak did not offer to step down himself, and Obama did not call on him to do so. Instead he emphasized the need for Mubarak to make reforms and said: "This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise."

Video: Clinton 'deeply concerned' about Egypt police violence (on this page)

Before Obama spoke, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced the administration might cut the $1.5 billion in annual foreign aid sent to Egypt, depending on Mubarak's response to the demonstrations.

Gibbs said the "legitimate grievances" of the Egyptian people must be addressed immediately by their government and violence is not the right response. He reiterated calls for calm and said that the Pentagon has been in direct contact with the Egyptian military to caution restraint.

A lot at stake for U.S.
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.

Story: What the United States has at stake in Egypt

Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government in Egypt should restore access to the Internet and social media sites.

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"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 told reporters at the State Department.

Video: Obama: Mubarak 'must deliver on promise' (on this page)

Asked about U.S. aid to Egypt, currently running at about $1.5 billion a year, Gibbs said the U.S. would review it, including military help and other assistance.

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.

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Slideshow: Slideshow: Egyptians take to the streets

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."

Asked whether the U.S would prefer a different, more tolerant government in Egypt, he said, "I don't want to project into the future. I don't think that would be a wise use of my time. The government of Egypt is an issue for the people of Egypt."

Asked whether senior administration officials had privately been discussing the possibility of Mubarak's ouster, he said, "It is safe to say, without getting into a level of detail or granularity, that 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.

Video: Police battle protesters in Egypt  (on this page)

"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."

Clinton, like Gibbs, spoke with care while insisting Egyptians "refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully."

She sidestepped a question on whether the United States believed that Mubarak's government 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.

Video: Engel: Mubarak regime restores cellphone service (on this page)

Clinton said that reform "is absolutely critical to the well-being of Egypt" and urged Mubarak and his government to "engage immediately" with opposition groups and others to make broad economic, political and social changes. She said the Obama administration had raised repeatedly with Egypt the "imperative for reform and greater openness."

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Video: NBC's Engel tells of violence on Cairo streets

"The Egyptian government has a real opportunity in the face of this very clear demonstration of opposition to begin a process that will truly respond to the aspirations of the people of Egypt," she said. "We think that moment needs to be seized and we are hoping that it is."

White House and State Department spokesmen echoed Clinton's remarks in comments posted to Twitter, one of the social media sites that the Egyptian protesters had used to organize their demonstrations and that the government has blocked access to.

Dem, GOP lawmakers respond
Senior lawmakers expressed growing unease with the developments, which could affect their deliberations on future assistance to Egypt.

Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
Egyptian anti-government activists, some standing on a burned police car challenge riot police officers, not seen, during clashes in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday.

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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