WASHINGTON (AP) — Stepping up pressure on a stalwart but flawed Middle East ally, President Barack Obama said he personally told Egypt's Hosni Mubarak Friday night to take "concrete steps" to expand rights inside the Arab nation and refrain from violence against protesters flooding the streets of Cairo and other cities. The White House suggested U.S. aid could be at stake.
"Surely, there will be difficult days to come, but the United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful," Obama told reporters in the State Dining Room after speaking with the long-time leader from the White House.
The president made his comments on television shortly after he and Mubarak spoke. The half-hour phone call was initiated by the White House.
The conversation between the two leaders followed closely on a middle-of-the-night TV speech in which Mubarak, in Cairo, announced he was sacking his government to form a new one that would accelerate reforms. At the same time, he said, violence by protesters would not be tolerated.
Obama's remarks capped a day in which his administration struggled to keep abreast of developments in Egypt, where Mubarak ordered police and then the military into the streets in response to the thousands of protesters.
Before Obama spoke, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced the administration might cut the $1.5 billion in annual foreign aid sent to Egypt, depending on Mubarak's response to the demonstrations.
Obama also repeated demands by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for Egypt's government to restore access to the Internet and social media sites, cut by the authorities in an apparent attempt to limit the flow of information about the protests demanding an end to Mubarak's rule.
Obama noted the United States and Egypt have a close partnership, a reference to Mubarak's support over the years for peace with Israel.
But he said, "We've also been clear that there must be reform, political, social and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. 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 said. "Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people, and suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."
He added that the demonstrators had a responsibility "to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms they seek."
Obama's decision to speak about the crisis in Egypt underscored the enormous U.S. interest at stake — from Israel's security to the importance of the Suez Canal and the safety of thousands of Americans who live and work in Egypt.
Gibbs said Obama had been briefed repeatedly during the day about the events unfolding half a world away.
The State Department issued a warning for Americans to defer all non-essential travel to Egypt.
Clinton said Mubarak should seize the moment to enact the long-called-for economic, political and social reforms that the protesters want. She said authorities must respect the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of speech, assembly and expression.
"We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces," Clinton said.
She sidestepped a question on whether the United States believed Mubarak was finished, but she said the U.S. wanted to work as a partner with the country's people and government to help realize reform in a peaceful manner. That underscored concerns that extremist elements might seek to take advantage of a political vacuum left by a sudden change in leadership.