In his first extended public comments on the situation in Egypt, President Obama on Friday night urged the U.S. ally to curb the use of violence and reverse its decision to suspend Internet and cell-phone access as it grapples with massive street protests.
“I want to be very clear in calling out the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters,” Mr. Obama said in a brief statement from the White House’s state dining room.
“The people of Egypt have rights that are universal … these are human rights, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere.”
In recent days, the wave of volatile protests gripping the ancient Middle Eastern country has put the Obama administration in a tricky position as it weighs public criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been a consistent U.S. ally on issues ranging from combating terrorism to peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Some human rights activists, and according to media reports, protesters themselves, have blasted the U.S. for being too tepid in its comments on the situation. Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in an interview that Mr. Mubarak, who has used strong-arm tactics to remain in power for 30 years, is not a dictator — a statement that drew some ridicule as amateur videos of protesters being shot surfaced on the Internet.
Likely responding to the backlash as well as deteriorating conditions on the ground, the White House toughened its stance Friday. Earlier in the day, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. is reviewing its $1.5 billion in aid to the country in light of the government’s heavy-handed response to protesters who, emboldened by the recent government collapse in neighboring Tunisia, have demanded more rights.
Mr. Obama on Friday said he had spoken with Mr. Mubarak and urged him to restore phone and Internet access to citizens.
“At the same time, those protesting in the streets have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully,” Mr. Obama said. “Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek.”
The president said the “moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment or promise.”