WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sharpened its response to political upheaval and brutal crackdowns in Egypt on Wednesday, telling its closest ally in the Arab world it must respond to its people's yearnings for democracy as the largest political protests in years swept Cairo streets.
But with no clear picture emerging of a democratic and pro-Western alternative to the three-decade rule of Egypt's authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, it was unclear how hard the United States was willing to press its case.
A day after delivering a measured response to Egypt's demonstrations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Egypt had to adopt democratic and other reforms and allow peaceful protests. She told Cairo to lay off social media sites like Facebook and Twitter even as activists are using them to organize street gatherings and destabilize the government.
The White House declined a direct opportunity to affirm support for Mubarak, who traveled to Washington to meet President Barack Obama just four months ago. Asked if the administration still backed Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would say only: "Egypt is a strong ally."
The tougher tone came as the U.S. struggles to confront an explosion of instability in the Middle East as Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen rebel against decades of political repression. Adding to the confluence of crises is the emergence of an Iranian-backed militant movement as Lebanon's dominant force and potentially embarrassing revelations creating new obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Clinton said Mubarak's government had the power to ease tensions with anti-government activists, who defied an official ban on protests Wednesday by pelting police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes. Police forces used tear gas and fired live ammunition in the air to disperse demonstrators. Some people were beaten.
"I do think it's possible for there to be reforms and that is what we are urging and calling for," Clinton told reporters at a State Department news conference with visiting Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
"It is something that I think everyone knows must be on the agenda of the government as they not just respond to the protests but as they look beyond as to what needs to be done."
The protests against Mubarak's three-decade grip on power were inspired by the ouster of another long-time leader, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in a popular uprising nearly two weeks ago.
The day before Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia, Clinton delivered a stark warning to Arab leaders across the Middle East that they faced possible revolt if they failed to address rampant social problems, repression and corruption that have alienated their populations, particularly the educated youth. Foundations of development and progress in the region were "sinking into the sand," she warned.
But having spent billions of dollars supporting its few Arab friends for decades, the United States is nearly as large a target for the unrest as the authoritarian regimes under siege.
U.S. officials won't paint the problem as one of democracy versus loyalty, but Washington's labored approach to the protests in different countries illustrates a complicated blend of political idealism and realpolitik. It also points up the unpredictability of the tinderbox of Arab populism.
Egypt represents the greatest challenge because of its strategic position bridging two continents, leadership status in the Arab world, lasting peace with Israel and the possibility of a hardline, Islamist movement filling the vacuum were Mubarak to be deposed.
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