January 29, 2011 / 1:02 AM / in 7 years

Obama keeps pressure on Mubarak as U.S. protests grow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday it was not enough simply to “reshuffle the deck” with a shake-up of his government and pressed him to make good on his promise of genuine reform.

As angry protesters defied a curfew in Egyptian cities, President Barack Obama and his administration kept up pressure for Mubarak to heed their calls for democratic change and take seriously a U.S. threat to review massive aid to Cairo.

Obama is performing a delicate balancing act, trying to avoid abandoning Mubarak -- an important U.S. strategic ally of 30 years -- while supporting protesters who seek broader political rights and demand his ouster. But Washington has limited options to influence the situation.

“The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a message on Twitter.com after Mubarak fired his government but made clear he had no intention of stepping down.

“President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action,” he said, echoing Obama’s appeal on Friday for Mubarak to embrace a new political dynamic.

Crowley’s comments, part of an increasingly assertive U.S. stance, came just before Mubarak picked intelligence chief and confidant Omar Suleiman as vice president. It is a post Mubarak had never filled in three decades of rule, and many interpreted the move as edging toward an eventual handover of power.

There was no immediate U.S. reaction to the appointment of Suleiman, who has played a prominent role in Egypt’s relations with the United States and its ally Israel.

Obama huddled on Saturday for an hour with his national security team on the crisis in Egypt, a linchpin of U.S. Middle East strategy. Afterward, the White House said its focus remained on “calling for restraint, supporting universal rights and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform.”

The U.S. administration was caught off guard by the political upheaval that has rocked the Middle East in recent days, from Egypt to Tunisia to Lebanon to Yemen.

PROTEST IN U.S. CITIES

As U.S. officials weighed the latest developments in Egypt, protests emerged in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, where about 150 people marched from the Egyptian Embassy to the White House and stood outside the gates chanting, “Hey Obama, don’t you know, Hosni Mubarak has to go.”

A top Republican called for Mubarak to hold elections.

“Mr. Mubarak should listen to the demands of the Egyptian people for freedom and immediately schedule legitimate, democratic, internationally recognized elections,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The people of Egypt no longer accept the status quo. They are looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform,” Crowley said as unrest in Egypt’s cities continued for a fifth day despite Mubarak having ordered the army to the streets. At least 74 people have been killed.

Obama spoke to Mubarak on Friday and urged sweeping reforms, while the White House made clear that $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, most of it military, is at stake.

Obama said he pushed Mubarak to fulfill his pledges of greater democracy and economic freedom shortly after the Egyptian president gave a televised speech in which he dismissed his Cabinet in response to the protests.

Egypt’s crisis poses a dilemma for the United States. Mubarak, 82, has been a close partner of Washington for decades and has cited the danger of Islamic militancy in part as justification for his long autocratic rule.

Egypt plays an important role in Middle East peacemaking -- it was the first of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel -- and is also seen by Washington as a crucial counterweight to Iran’s regional clout. But human rights groups have accused successive U.S. administrations of being too tolerant of Egyptian rights abuses.

From the U.S. perspective, the worst-case scenario in Egypt’s crisis would be the rise of an Islamist government potentially aligned with Iran. But so far there has been no sign of Muslim fundamentalism driving the protest movement.

In New York, nearly 1,500 people rallied outside the United Nations headquarters, chanting “People want regime change.”

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Egyptian consulate in Chicago carrying signs, singing the Egyptian anthem and chanting slogans such as “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will see Mubarak fall.”

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Lisa Richwine, Susan Cornwell and Alistair Bell in Washington, Edith Honan in New York, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Philip Barbara

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