Updated at 2:50 p.m. on January 30.
Reflecting Washington’s uncertainty about how to tackle the populist uprising in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today insisted American interests jibe with the protesters calling for new leadership and further decoupled the Obama administration from President Hosni Mubarak.
Clinton stopped short of advocating that Mubarak relinquish power but did call for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.”
“I think that there are many, many steps that have to be taken, and it’s not a question of who retains power,” Clinton said on NBC's Meet the Press, adding, “Clearly, the path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future.”
Asked by host David Gregory whether she would still label the Mubarak regime stable, Clinton replied, “I’m not going to get into either/or choices.”
Pressed on whether the U.S. would offer Mubarak sanctuary if he were deposed, Clinton said, “We are only at the beginning of what is unfolding in Egypt.”
The White House said in a statement Sunday that President Obama spoke by phone this weekend with the prime ministers of Turkey, Israel and the United Kingdom, and with the King of Saudi Arabia about the situation in Iraq.
The fast-moving change in Egypt, viewed in America through television and Internet video scenes of violent and chaotic protests in the streets, has forced the U.S. to tailor dramatically its engagement with an ally of three decades.
Clinton today said the United States wanted political and economic reforms, praised the Egyptian army as a respected institution, and called for an “orderly transition” that would obviate a power vacuum that could lead to radicalized leadership of the longtime U.S. ally. She said the U.S. has not moved toward shutting off roughly $1.5 billion in aid to the country.
“We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about,” Clinton said on Fox News Sunday. “We also want to see an orderly transition... so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void.”
Earlier Sunday, the American embassy in Cairo announced evacuation flights for American citizens seeking to leave voluntarily and encouraged them to consider leaving as soon as possible.
The United States has been delicately and constantly refining its response to the Egyptian turmoil, loath to appear resistant to democracy but evidently fearful that a regime change in Cairo could result in a less willing partner.
Following Clinton on Fox News, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded a note of support for the Obama administration.
“I think the administration, our administration so far, has handled this tense situation pretty well,” Boehner told host Chris Wallace. “Clearly, reforms need to occur in Egypt.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also shied from faulting the administration, saying, “I don’t have any criticism of President Obama or Secretary Clinton at this point.... I think we ought to speak as one voice here in this crisis.”
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the administration should have more aggressively pushed for democratization.
During her tour of the Sunday news shows, Clinton insisted the U.S. position had been consistent, despite the administration’s rapid backpedaling from support last week for Mubarak. Since taking power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat, Mubarak has been a consistent U.S. ally, helping fashion Egypt into what Clinton called "our partner" in a regional peace process.
Still, she said the U.S. recognized the situation's "volatility."
"We are on the side, as we have been for more than 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people, that respects the universal human rights of all Egyptians,” Clinton said on CNN's State of the Union. “That is the message that every ambassador -- whether Republican or Democratic president -- everyone has conveyed for over 30 years. What happens is truly up to the Egyptian people."
During a subsequent appearance on ABC News's This Week, Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Sameh Shoukry sought to portray the Mubarak administration as aligned with the demonstrators' concerns.
"Egypt has been on a road of economic, political, democratic reform" for decades, Shoukry said, acknowledging that "certainly, Egypt is going through a difficult time."
Calling the reform process "ongoing," he told host Christiane Amanpour, "The people on the streets have indicated a desire for speedier reforms."
Amanpour pressed Shoukry about whether the administration could withstand the pressure building to a boil on the streets. He said, "I think it’s a demonstration of people more actively involving themselves in their future and the composition of their government."
The U.S. has called vaguely for reform, issuing deliberately unspecified statements designed to preserve American leverage there and permit Mubarak space to maneuver to salvage his post. Mubarak on Saturday named longtime ally Omar Suleiman, the country's top intelligence official, as the first vice president of his rule.
Reported death tolls have topped 70, with more expected as protesters in Egypt have been fired upon by police.
The Associated Press reported today that Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news station, said Egyptian authorities had instructed the cessation of its Cairo operations.
The U.S. has ripped Mubarak’s shutdown of news and social media.
Clinton today repeatedly declined to say whether the U.S. had misjudged the early stages of the protests, after as late as Tuesday labeling Mubarak’s administration as stable. She said 20th-century responses to 21st-century movements are no longer sufficient.
“The world is moving too fast,” she said. “There is too much information.”
The State Department reported no incidents of Americans injured or killed, but issued a strongly worded advisory this morning recommending against travel to Egypt.
“U.S. citizens currently in Egypt should consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so,” the advisory said.
“While demonstrations have not been directed toward Westerners, U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security.”