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Obama pushes Mubarak to fulfill reform pledge

President Obama, describing a 30-minute telephone talk with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shortly after Mubarak's televised address, says protesters' 'grievances have built up over time.'

January 28, 2011|By Paul Richter and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — President Obama prodded besieged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "take concrete steps and actions that deliver" on reforms that Mubarak promised in a speech early Saturday to Egyptians, suggesting that continued American support for his regime will depend on immediate action.

Obama, describing a candid 30-minute telephone conversation he had with the Egyptian leader shortly after Mubarak's televised address, said protesters' "grievances have built up over time" because Mubarak has failed to address Egyptians' desire for more open government and improved economic opportunities.

Obama again called on the Egyptian government to show restraint in keeping order, and he also emphasized that demonstrators have a responsibility to protest peacefully. "Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek," he said.

"This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise," Obama said in a televised appearance from the White House State Dining Room.

"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.

Mubarak, in his first public appearance since the tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, said he understood Egyptians' hardships. He announced that he was firing his government, but he did not offer to step down as the demonstrators have demanded.

In another move to raise pressure on the Mubarak government, U.S. officials Friday threatened to cut the $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt if the government did not heed its calls to avoid violence against the protesters.

"Violence in any form needs to stop, and grievances need to be addressed," said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary. "We will be reviewing our posture based on events in the coming days."

Aid is Washington's greatest leverage in the three-decade U.S.-Egyptian alliance. Analysts said the threat was aimed not only at Mubarak but also at Egypt's military leaders, who depend heavily on the money for basic operations. The aid package is $1.3 billion in military assistance and about $250 million in economic assistance.

"This is a warning to the military: You guys be careful; we could pull the plug," said Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. "This is very serious."

Mubarak on Friday sent the military into the streets, where soldiers were cheered by protesters who had clashed with police officers and security forces. U.S. observers said they had not witnessed any unwarranted actions by the military.

"They're a professional military with whom we have close ties, and we see no indication that they are acting in any other way but professionally, at this point," said a senior Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The protests in Egypt forced Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, to cut short meetings in Washington, according to a statement released Friday by the Pentagon.

Enan and a delegation of 25 Egyptian officers had been scheduled to attend meetings in Washington until Wednesday as part of a regular set of discussions between defense officials in both countries. The talks were adjourned Friday after the Egyptian delegation was called home by its government, according to the Pentagon.

Before Enan's departure, Alexander Vershbow, the assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, urged Egypt's military not to use unnecessary force.

"The current situation in Egypt arose very quickly, but Ambassador Vershbow did have the opportunity to urge restraint to his Egyptian counterpart during the Wednesday and Thursday meetings here in the Pentagon," the statement said.

A senior Defense official said other U.S. civilian and uniformed officials contacted Egyptian counterparts Friday to repeat the same message: It would be unwise for the Egyptian armed forces to use force.

"We will support you, but it would be in everybody's best interest if anything you do is nonviolent," said the U.S. official, describing the theme of the Pentagon advice to the Egyptian military.

The Egyptian government, however, ignored U.S. warnings to stop interfering with the Internet access and social network websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that protesters had been using to communicate. There also was no sign that Egyptian authorities intended to lift the house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei despite the White House's expressions of support for him.

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