WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday and said he told him to undertake sweeping reforms, while U.S. officials made clear that $1.5 billion in American aid to Egypt is at stake.
Obama said he pushed Mubarak to make good on his pledges of greater democracy and economic freedom shortly after Mubarak gave a televised speech in which he dismissed his government in response to days of violent protest in Egyptian cities.
“I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise,” Obama told reporters following a 30-minute telephone conversation with the Egyptian leader.
Mubarak called in his televised statement for a national dialogue to avoid chaos, while ordering tanks and troops onto the streets to restore control.
“I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters,” Obama said.
The U.S. president also said protesters in Egypt have a responsibility to remain peaceful. “Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms they seek,” Obama said.
Obama called on Egypt’s government to reverse actions it has taken to “interfere with access to the Internet, to cellphone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.”
“What’s needed now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people, a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people,” Obama added.
The United States views Mubarak as a critical partner -- a linchpin for future Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and bulwark against Iran’s regional clout. But U.S. officials have stressed this week their long-standing support for democratic reforms in Egypt.
A review of U.S. aid to Egypt has raised U.S. pressure to a new level.
The United States gave Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid in the 2010 fiscal year, making it one of the largest foreign U.S. aid recipients.
“We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
“We are watching very closely the actions of the government, of the police, of all the security forces and all of those in the military -- that their actions may affect our assistance would be the subject of that review.”
The U.S. government urged American citizens to postpone nonessential travel to Egypt and said Americans who are in the country should stay indoors.
A U.S. official monitoring the events said the situation was fluid. “Unless something breaks the current tension, we are approaching the point where either the military has to crack down hard or the regime has to give way,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Steven Cook, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said the United States possesses very little leverage in altering the direction of events in Egypt.
“Any effort on our part at this point to provide support to Mubarak is going to be read in Egypt as supporting a crackdown and supporting an inherently nondemocratic regime while people are out in the streets demanding an end to this regime,” Cook said.
While Mubarak sent troops and armored cars onto the streets, a senior Egyptian military official cut short a previously scheduled visit to Washington.
The chief of staff of Egypt’s armed forces, General Sami Enan, intended to return to Egypt on Friday rather than stay into next week, a top U.S. general said.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, Mark Hosenball, Will Dunham, Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Will Dunham