As events in Egypt dominated world capitals and world markets Friday, the US was sending the government of President Hosni Mubarak two clear and stark messages: Get moving on reforms now if you want to survive, and whatever you do, do not react to your people’s protests with a massive crackdown.
The comments followed those of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who said at a press briefing earlier in the day: “We’ve reached a point where the grievances of the people have to be addressed. Have to. Must.”
Beyond that, Mr. Gibbs said a review of more than $1 billion dollars in annual US aid to Egypt was under way, and he suggested that any government attempt to meet the turmoil with massive repression would have grave consequences. “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that occur in the coming days,” he said.
Still, the White House was categorical that – despite the cries in Egyptian streets for Mubarak’s ouster – the US still believes the Mubarak government has an “opportunity” to hold on by proceeding swiftly to economic, political, and social reforms.
Late in the Egyptian night, President Mubarak, who before had been eerily absent, finally appeared on Egyptian national television, calling for “communication and talking” to solve the country’s problems, but insisting that “fires and chaos” only threaten the country’s security.
Mubarak announced he had demanded the resignation of his entire government, and pledged to name a new government Saturday.
Mubarak gave no suggestion that he considered his own three-decade reign to be under threat. That show of confidence had a certain echo in the White House, where officials were carefully rebuffing any suggestion that Mubarak should go the way of Tunisia’s Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, who was forced out this month by massive protests after a 23-year reign.
Asked if Mubarak’s time had already passed, Gibbs responded, “Absolutely not.” What must be the focus now is dialogue and reform, he said, adding, “The time for that to happen has most certainly come.”
Yet Mr. Obama offered support for the protesters, too. "The people of Egypt have rights that are universal, that includes the right to peaceful assembly," Obama said. "These are human rights, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere."
Obama said he spoke with Mubarak by phone Friday and vowed to hold Mubarak to pledges to reform Egyptian government.
The Obama administration was clearly caught off guard by the rapidity and ferocity of events in Egypt, with a White House day set to be dominated by health care and other domestic issues turned upside down by the massive protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Contingency planning was under way across the administration, with Gibbs acknowledging that “a robust set of meetings has been going on” across the administration.
The stability of the Egyptian government affects geopolitical and international economic issues as far-flung as the US-underwritten Israeli-Egyptian peace accord to the smooth operation of the Suez Canal. The US-Egypt bilateral relationship has been the linchpin of US Mideast policy for several decades.
On the other hand, the US has also been encouraging Egypt for at least a decade to move toward democratization and broad social and economic reforms. If anything, President George W. Bush was more insistent on the need for democratic reforms across the Arab world than Obama has recently become.
What remains to be seen now is if Mubarak’s new government will be gesture enough – either for Egyptians or for the US. It seems doubtful, unless the new government includes long-suppressed opposition forces as at least a start.
In his televised address, Mubarak focused his remarks on the country’s economic situation, as if he were convinced some measures addressing high unemployment and food prices might calm the country.
But Mubarak’s words are either wishful thinking, or reflect a deeply mistaken misreading of the protests. Egyptian political analysts and experts say the key issue is political transition, and they say that is where protesters are demanding movement.
The question the White House but also the world will be posing in the coming hours is, will even political reform be enough, or will Mubarak have to go?