WASHINGTON The United States on Tuesday set out four steps Cairo must take to end Egypt's crisis, telling its ally to stop harassing protesters and immediately repeal an emergency law allowing detention without charge.
The Obama administration appears worried President Hosni Mubarak's government will not make meaningful changes in the largest Arab nation, a strategic U.S. partner due to its peace treaty with Israel and control of the Suez Canal.
The steps, conveyed by Vice President Joe Biden to Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, appeared to rebuff the former intelligence chief who is negotiating with opposition figures seeking Mubarak's immediate departure after 30 years in power.
Suleiman was quoted on Sunday as suggesting Egypt was not ready for democracy and a government statement said the emergency law would be lifted "according to the security conditions" -- a phrase giving the authorities wide latitude.
As Egyptians staged one of their biggest anti-Mubarak protests yet, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described Suleiman's comments about democracy as "unhelpful."
Mubarak, under pressure from more than two weeks of unprecedented demonstrations, has said he will not seek re-election in September but has refused to resign.
After Biden spoke to Suleiman by telephone on Tuesday, the White House issued a statement listing four steps the United States wants Egypt to take:
-- "Restraining the Ministry of Interior's conduct by immediately ending the arrests, harassment, beating, and detention of journalists, and political and civil society activists, and by allowing freedom of assembly and expression;
-- "immediately rescinding the emergency law;
-- "broadening participation in the national dialogue to include a wide range of opposition members; and,
-- "inviting the opposition as a partner in jointly developing a roadmap and timetable for transition."
Biden stressed U.S. support "for an orderly transition in Egypt that is prompt, meaningful, peaceful, and legitimate" and urged "immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the statement said.
Even as Washington voiced its criticism, Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Egypt's military for its restraint.
The armed forces -- long the backbone of Egypt's government -- have behaved in "an exemplary fashion" by standing largely on the sidelines during the uprising, he said.
"I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt," Gates told a news conference.
The praise for the military, which gets about $1.3 billion in U.S. aid every year, appeared designed to buttress U.S. ties with a power broker whose role is expected to be key to whatever political order emerges in Egypt.
U.S. officials do not believe the military was responsible for widespread violence against protesters last week, including men on horseback who rode into Cairo's Tahrir Square brandishing whips, although the army failed to stop it.
The U.S. decision to support the transition effort under Suleiman and to stop short of calling for Mubarak's resignation has angered many demonstrators.
An influential group of U.S. analysts said Washington risked condoning "an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transition."
"The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smokescreen," the Working Group on Egypt, which includes a number of prominent think tank analysts and rights activists, said in letters this week to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa and Patricia Zengerle; writing by Andrew Quinn; editing by John O'Callaghan and Mohammad Zargham)