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US hedges bets but insists on need for Egyptian reform

State Department spokesman says that President Mubarak's words pledging reform 'must be followed by action.'

WASHINGTON // Slowly, the US stance on events in Egypt is changing. "The Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat," the US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said in a message on Twitter yesterday, after Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, on Friday night announced that he would dismiss his cabinet.

"President Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action," Mr Crowley added in the strongest statement yet to come from the State Department.

Mr Crowley's comments came before Mr Mubarak yesterday picked his intelligence chief and confidante, Omar Suleiman, as vice president, a post Mr Mubarak has never filled in 30 years of his rule.

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

But Washington was still hedging its bets yesterday as Egyptians embarked on a fifth day of protest in defiance of Mr Mubarak, whose televised speech to the nation late Friday did little to placate demonstrators.

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EDITORIAL

Egypt speaks but not with one voice

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The US is caught between support for Mr Mubarak, in whose leadership it has invested billions over the decades and who has been a long-time and loyal ally in the region, and the calls for change, reform and greater freedom from the streets of Egypt that Washington can no longer ignore.

For days, US officials had been urging "restraint" from all sides, the kind of language used when diplomats seek to avoid taking a clear position. On Friday night, however, Barack Obama, the US president, struck a more strident note with a short statement from the White House.

He called on the Egyptian government to respect the "universal" rights of its people to peaceful assembly and free speech.

Mr Obama's statement came after Mr Mubarak's own address in which the Egyptian leader promised his people that he would heed their calls for change. It also came after apparently the first conversation between the two leaders since the protests began.

"I told him," Mr Obama said of that conversation, "he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."

That remark, for all its implied admonishment, nevertheless suggested that Mr Obama still saw Mr Mubarak as leading such steps. And while it contrasted markedly in tone from that of Joe Biden, the US vice president, who only 24 hours earlier had told PBS he did not see Mr Mubarak as a dictator and rejected any comparison with Tunisia, it contained the same overall message: the US will support reform, will push for more political openness, but - at least for now - within the confines of the current leadership.

Graeme Bannerman, a scholar with the Middle East Institute and a former Middle East analyst at the US State Department, said: "The problem for the United States is that [US-aligned Arab] governments have supported, or at least not opposed, American policies that are unpopular with their own people.

"Therefore, whatever change occurs which increases popular participation - which we are for - will create a government that will be less friendly with our policies."

US officials, both privately and publicly, have long protested at Egyptian government practices. In a new batch of diplomatic dispatches out of the US embassy in Cairo released by Wikileaks on Friday, Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador to Egypt, in 2009 described policy brutality in Egypt as "routine and pervasive".

The US also openly criticised Egyptian parliamentary elections in November 2010 in which Cairo banned international monitors, and the National Democratic Party, Mr Mubarak's party, won nearly every seat.

Nevertheless, in December the US still approved an aid package to Egypt of more than US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn). US military aid to Egypt totals over $1.3bn annually. In addition, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided more than $28bn in economic and development assistance to the country since 1975.

After Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid.

On Friday, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the US was going to review its "assistance posture" pending developments in Egypt, but critics said change in US policy was unlikely unless forced upon Washington.

"The US wants the regime to stay at all costs," said As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University and author of the Angry Arab News Service blog. He said Egypt's peace treaty with Israel was one of the overriding factors in this calculation.

"The optimism of Arabs, and Egyptians in particular, has to be counterbalanced with the extent to which Israel and America are not going to let change come to Egypt."

Options for the US are, however, limited. It will not openly side with the government against protesters asking for the very reforms the US traditionally promotes, nor can it abandon the Egyptian leadership. Officials in Washington will likely continue simply to call for restraint in the coming days until the situation clears, mindful that the worst outcome would be a brutal crackdown.

But US attitudes toward Arab public opinion may well shift. For long, officials and policymakers in Washington have seen Arab public opinion as largely irrelevant and even unreasonable.

Thus David Frum, a speech writer for former President George W Bush, could this week dismiss Palestinian anger over revelations contained in the Palestine Papers as evidence that popular Palestinian demands are unrealistic.

Popular Arab demands may not be so easy to ignore any more.

"This should be some of the lessons," Mr Bannerman said. "There is a popular public opinion in the Arab world, and it's not just for their own well-being, it is a whole series of issues.

okarmi@thenational.ae

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