WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama dramatically increased pressure Friday on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to overhaul the political system in response to nationwide protests, telling Mubarak it is time to open “a meaningful dialogue” with his opponents.
Obama spoke by phone from the White House with Mubarak shortly after the Egyptian leader announced that he had fired his government and would appoint a new one today. Obama told Mubarak “he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.”
In his televised appearance, the president also called on Mubarak’s government to refrain from violence against protesters and “to reverse the actions that they’ve taken” to shut off virtually all Internet access and cell phone service.
Obama’s remarks were the most blunt from the U.S. government since the protests began Tuesday, and suggested that Mubarak’s days in power could be numbered following the worst violence in 60 years.
Privately, a senior U.S. official questioned whether Mubarak understood the depths of popular unrest in his country.
“The real question is to what extent does the government really understand what is happening in the streets and the implications of what is happening in the streets? Based on that, do the fissures grow or narrow?” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
“What you are seeing here is the long-term de-legitimization of the Mubarak government,” he added.
Egypt receives $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, but it remains to be seen how the country’s 82-year-old strongman responds to Obama. So far, Mubarak has largely ignored U.S. calls for restraint, sending tanks into the streets Friday to quell spreading unrest.
“I don’t think they’re listening,” said Jon Alterman, an Egypt specialist and director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mubarak and his advisers appear willing to risk damaging ties with the U.S. to stay in power, Alterman said.
The top priority of Mubarak and his aging lieutenants has been maintaining their rule, and they would have resisted any changes that they viewed as endangering their grip on power, experts said.
“Insofar as the perception of Mubarak and his seniors are that they have to do certain firm things to stay in power, no advice from any power, be it the U.S. or anyone else, is going to make that much difference in the end,” said Paul Pillar, a former top U.S. intelligence analyst for the Middle East now with Georgetown University’s security studies program.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced Friday that the administration is reviewing U.S. aid to Egypt. But it remains unclear if that will result in significant cutbacks in assistance to one of Washington’s most reliable Arab allies.
Obama requested $1.5 billion for Egypt in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, including $1.3 billion in military aid.
Separately, the State Department advised U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to Egypt, where Internet and cell phone service has been cut, and the government has ordered a curfew.
Obama and his senior aides are walking the diplomatic equivalent of a slippery tightrope, eager to show sympathy with the protesters without being blamed for pulling the plug on Mubarak, who has supported U.S. efforts to make Middle East peace, fight Islamic radicals and contain Iran.
As the week has worn on, they have steadily toughened their message to the Mubarak government.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sidestepped a question about Mubarak’s future on Friday, while Gibbs declined to offer a U.S. endorsement. “We’re monitoring a very fluid situation,” he said.
In a discordant note, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday had appeared to express continuing U.S. support for the Egyptian leader.
“Mubarak has been an ally of ours on a number of things. … I would not refer to him as a dictator,” Biden said on PBS’ “NewsHour.”
Underscoring deep, long-standing U.S.-Egyptian ties, an Egyptian military delegation led by Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian army, was in Washington this week for Pentagon meetings.
The delegation, which had been expected to stay until Wednesday, departed for home Friday.