Updated at 4:30 p.m. on January 28.
The United States urged restraint and nonviolence in Egypt today, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanding the government rein in security forces clashing with tens of thousands of anti-government protesters. The U.S. supports Egyptians' rights of free speech and assembly, Clinton said, but protesters must be peaceful as well.
"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. At the same time, protesters should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully," Clinton said at the State Department.
Clinton's message was measured as she went before reporters. While she restated her call for reform in Egypt, the White House warned that massive amounts of U.S. aid could be at stake.
"Obviously, we will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
U.S. officials were closely monitoring the standoff in Cairo as it continued during the protesters' "Day of Anger" and as the government tried to enforce its ban on such demonstrations. Protesters, calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, clashed with police who used riot sticks, tear gas, and water cannons to try to diffuse the mobs. At least seven people have been killed so far this week, and dozens more injured.
A curfew was in place throughout the country. Gibbs said there were no plans to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
“These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away,” Clinton said.
Gibbs said President Obama was closely following developments but had not spoken with Mubarak. He added that officials would be reviewing the $1.3 billion in military aid the United States gives Egypt each year. The U.S. also has provided more than $28 billion in economic and development assistance since 1975.
“The people of Egypt are watching the government's actions. They have for quite some time. Their grievances have reached a boiling point. And they have to be addressed. We will watch the actions of government. I reiterate the urging of restraint for the security forces and for the military. All of that will go into that review,” Gibbs said.
Many are watching the United States to see what stance Obama will take toward Mubarak, a longstanding American ally with an unpopular regime that is widely seen as ineffective and fraught with corruption. Mubarak, now 82, has yet to clarify whether he will seek reelection next year.
“Egypt has long been an important partner to the United States on a range of regional issues. As a partner, we strongly believe that the Egyptian government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political, and social reforms,” Clinton said.
"The real question we’re focused on is how can we support a better future for the people in Egypt that responds to their aspirations," she added. "The Egyptian government has a real opportunity in the face of this very clear demonstration of opposition to begin a process that will truly respond to the aspirations of the people of Egypt. We think that moment needs to be seized -- and we are hoping that it is."
Washington has a vested interest in backing Mubarak, a secularist, in his fight against extremism and terrorism. The administration also wants to make sure that Egypt maintains its peace deal with Israel, posing a profound foreign policy challenge. On one hand, the Obama administration wants to promote democracy abroad and in the Mideast specifically, as did its predecessor. Both Obama and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have given speeches in Cairo promoting greater freedom. On the other hand, the administration is vested in the Mubarak regime just as its predecessors have been since the Egyptian president took office three decades ago following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has continued to honor the 1979 Camp David accords with Israel, and Egypt remains one of the largest recipients of American aid.
The U.S. knows that democracy in Egypt could lead to an anti-American regime taking power just as free elections in Gaza led to the Hamas takeover in 2006. Similarly, elections have given Hezbollah a powerful position in Lebanon's government.
So the administration has been torn between wanting to be on what many officials see as the right side of history -- democracy, freedom -- and wanting to balance it with American interests.
The issue is especially poignant for the president, who was raised for part of his childhood in Indonesia -- a Muslim nation that was led by an American-supported dictator. Indeed, the crisis has echoes as well for Secretary of State Clinton, who as a youth was outraged by American support of dictatorships in South America, most notably the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Now, Clinton finds herself, like predecessors from Henry Kissinger to Cyrus Vance to James Baker, having to balance American ideals with American interests.
Rebecca Kaplan contributed