The White House faulted Egyptian vice President Omar Suleiman for saying his country was not ready for a democracy, calling his comments "unhelpful."

White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs made the comment at a daily news briefing on Tuesday.

Despite the comment, United States Vice President Joe Biden reached out to his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday with a phone call during which he reiterated U.S. support for an orderly transition of power in Egypt.

Biden also called for the immediate lifting of Egypt's longstanding emergency law and reiterated the U.S. stance that any future Egyptian government "be determined by the Egyptian people," the White House said.

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Egypt's military for its restraint during the country's two-week-long uprising, while the White House criticized its government for harassing protesters and journalists as demonstrations swelled anew.

Egypt's military -- long the backbone of the government in Cairo -- has behaved in "an exemplary fashion" by standing largely on the sidelines during the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, Gates told a news conference.

"I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt," he said as Egyptians staged one of their biggest protests yet demanding Mubarak step down immediately.

The praise for the military appeared designed to buttress U.S. ties with a power broker whose role is expected to be key to whatever political order emerges when Mubarak steps down. Under pressure from the protesters, Mubarak has said he will not seek re-election in September but has refused to resign.

U.S. officials do not believe the Egyptian military was responsible for widespread violence against protesters last week, including men on horseback who rode into Cairo's Tahrir Square brandishing whips, although it also failed to stop it.

The U.S. decision to support a transition effort launched by Mubarak's hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, and to stop short of calling for his resignation has angered many demonstrators who want the longtime U.S. ally to leave now.

On Tuesday, the White House repeated its demand the Egyptian government respect civil liberties.

"The government has got to stop arresting protesters and journalists, harassment, beatings, detentions of reporters, of activists, of those involved in civil society," Gibbs said. "We would call on all of those prisoners, as we have, to be released immediately."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear over the weekend that the United States supports the transition effort undertaken by Suleiman, a long-time intelligence chief regarded with deep skepticism by many in Egypt's opposition.

Washington, with its emphasis on long-term stability in a country regarded as a linchpin of U.S. Middle East policy, risks condoning "an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transition," said an influential group of U.S. analysts.

"The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smokescreen," the Working Group on Egypt said in letters this week to President Barack Obama and Clinton.

Suleiman has been talking with opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but the government has refused to give in to demands for the president's immediate ouster.

U.S. officials were concerned that forcing political change too quickly could create more instability in the world's largest Arab country, a key player in the Middle East peace process and important regional counterbalance to Iran.

Egypt's military gets about 1.3 billion dollars in U.S. aid every year, in part for keeping the peace with Israel since the two countries signed a groundbreaking accord in 1979. Washington has made clear there are no plans to review that aid at this crucial juncture.