The White House said Wednesday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has a chance to show the world "exactly who he is" by bringing desperately needed change to his country now.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs decried the bloody violence in Cairo, where pro-government forces clashed with protesters a day after Mubarak announced he would not seek re-election in September. That wasn't good enough for the protesters, who want him out now.
"If any of the violence is instigated by the government it should stop immediately," Gibbs said, while declining to speculate whether the government was in fact behind the violence. Protesters contend plainclothes police are among the pro-government attackers.
`'The president found the images outrageous and deplorable," the press secretary said.
Gibbs said no decision had been made on cutting off the $1.5 billion in annual aid the U.S. provides Egypt but that it was still under review. Gibbs reiterated President Barack Obama's call from Tuesday night that transition in Egypt must begin now — but he didn't explain exactly what that meant or say whether Mubarak should resign immediately.
"Now means now," Gibbs said at the White House briefing.
"The people of Egypt need to see change, the people of Egypt need to see progress," he said.
Gibbs didn't directly answer when asked whether Obama viewed Mubarak as a dictator, saying the Egyptian president had a chance to show who he was. Mubarak has been an important ally to the U.S. during his 30-year reign, ensuring passage through the Suez Canal and maintaining peace with Israel, but for many Egyptian people they have been years of corrosive poverty, repression and corruption.
Gibbs avoided describing what a future government of Egypt might look like, or whether it was acceptable to the U.S. for Mubarak to preside over the period before the next elections. Great uncertainty clouds the transition and its ultimate outcome, but Gibbs would not say whether one feared outcome — elevation of an Islamist fundamentalist regime — would be acceptable to the U.S.
Gibbs did say that the U.S. expects that whatever government comes into power will respect the treaties entered into by previous Egyptian governments — a clear reference to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, which has provided an important measure of stability for the region.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are in conversations with the Egyptian military, Gibbs said. He said he believed that contact had helped maintain a level of restraint by the military, a well-respected institution in Egypt which at least through Tuesday had been seen as offering implicit support to protesters.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen spoke by phone Wednesday morning with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan — their second conversation since Anan cut short a U.S. visit Friday to return to Egypt. The general gave Mullen an update on developments, according to a statement from Mullen's spokesman, and Mullen expressed confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to ensure security in the country and around the Suez Canal.
The unrest in Egypt was sparked by an uprising in Tunisia and is reverberating throughout the region. King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday sacked his government and named a new prime minister, bowing to public pressure. Gibbs said that Obama and Abdullah spoke on the phone late Tuesday, but he gave no details on the conversation.
Gibbs' comments Wednesday came as the protests in Egypt's capital took a dangerous turn, with several thousand Mubarak supporters, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, attacked anti-government protesters. In scenes of uncontrolled violence, some of the riders were dragged to the ground by demonstrators and beaten bloody while the two sides rained stones and bottles down on each other.
Along with the rest of the world, the White House was watching warily as the fast-moving events unfolded.
Behind the scenes, the White House had attempted to nudge Mubarak to the exits over the past 48 hours, dispatching former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner as a special envoy to deliver a message to him: The U.S. saw Mubarak's tenure at an end, didn't want him to seek re-election and wanted him to prepare an orderly transition to real democracy.
Speaking Wednesday to American ambassadors gathered in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the unrest in the Middle East showed the importance of strong U.S. diplomacy.
"What's going on today — recent events in Egypt and certainly in that broader region — remind us all how crucial it is to have top-notch leadership on the ground and how quickly the ground can shift under our feet," she said.
"This is a critical time for America's global leadership," Clinton added. She said the United States needs to "be more nimble" in dealing with fast-paced international developments.
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