Increasing the pressure on Egypt's leaders, the United States threatened on Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid depending on President Hosni Mubarak's response to swelling street protests in Cairo and other cities.
"Violence is not the response" to the demands for greater freedoms, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs said President Barack Obama had been briefed extensively about the fast-moving events but had not tried to speak with Mubarak by phone.
The White House spokesman's repeated calls for the government of Egypt to abandon violence 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.
Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government in Egypt should restore access to the Internet and social media sites.
"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.
Asked about US aid to Egypt, currently running at about $1.5 billion a year, Gibbs said the review would include both 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.
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 US 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."
He suggested contingency plans had been made for the evacuation of the US Embassy in Cairo, should that become necessary.
Mubarak has long faced calls from US presidents to loosen his grip on the country he has ruled for more than three decades. But he has seen past US-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 US efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world. He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the US 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 US 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 US 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.
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."
"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."
Growing unease among US lawmakers
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.
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.
For years, the US has treaded a delicate line with Mubarak, supporting him to further America's Middle East agenda but trying to prod him on human rights and democracy.
While tensions were often evident at public events with US and Egyptian officials, secret diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website revealed even deeper strains.
"The Egyptians have long felt that, at best, we take them for granted; and at worst, we deliberately ignore their advice while trying to force our point of view on them," Ambassador Scobey wrote in a February 9, 2009, memo before Clinton met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
The Egyptian government "remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, arguing that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently holds 86 seats – as independents – in Egypt's 454-seat parliament," Scobey wrote.
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