White House Cautious As It Watches Egypt

The sudden eruption of street protests in Egypt has changed the White House agenda overnight. Hopes of restarting the Obama presidency with a focus on jobs and the deficit after the State of the Union speech are threatened as a new crisis in the Arab world endangers the uneasy peace in the region and the fragile recovery at home. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

President Obama spoke with Hosni Mubarak shortly after President Mubarak's speech last night, and he called on Egyptian authorities he said to refrain from violence against peaceful protestors, and he urged Mr. Mubarak to fulfill his promise to expand democracy and economic opportunity.

President BARACK OBAMA: What's needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people. A meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens, and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity, and justice for the Egyptian people.

SIMON: President Obama speaking from the White House last night. Joined now by NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And President Obama seemed to endorse the goals of the protestors in every way but the one they wanted most and the one that they consider essential, and that's the ouster of Mr. Mubarak himself. Help us understand what the President is trying to say.

ELVING: The President is trying to say that the United States has contradictory interests here. He is trying to tell the Egyptians that he supports them in their legitimate grievances as he keeps calling them, and he supports their right to protest, their right to call for the ouster of Mubarak, but he also has a great deal invested.

The United States has 30 years invested in the Mubarak regime, and we are not prepared to treat him in quite the same way that we were prepared to treat say, Ben Ali in Tunisia. So he is trying to set up a kind of dynamic here, in which we're sending a signal to Mubarak, but we're also sending a signal to the protesters and we're also talking to all the other Arab governments who are watching very carefully to see how much we stand by our long-time ally.

SIMON: After 30 years of support and I don't know how many billions of dollars of aid, what kind of leverage does the United States have in events now?

ELVING: Well, potentially quite a bit. The most significant thing, as you mentioned, is the money. We have threatened him with taking away that aid that we give him every year, by some reckonings, a billion and a half a billion dollars for the military just by itself - and if we were to do that, of course, that would mean a great deal to Mubarak in the future. But in the immediate present of a larger issue is the political backing. Will we call on him to step aside the way we have done in other situations, beleaguered leaders in other countries? Will we do what we could do to ease in transition for his regime and facilitated an exit for him? Thats what the people of Egypt are waiting to hear.

SIMON: Yeah. And help us, because we can cast back to examples like Ferdinand Marcos, when the U.S. government, Reagan administration I believe, decided to cut the cord then, what's the hesitation now? Is there some feeling in the White House that President Mubarak might in fact hold on?

ELVING: Thats part of the reason the administration is in such a defensive crouch through this whole crisis. I mean earlier in the week you heard those pro-regime remarks from Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, talking about the stability of Egypt and the stability of the Mubarak regime. These are things that meant a great deal to the United States. Let's not forget that Egypt has been the linchpin and this regime has been the linchpin for our preserving the peace there for protecting Israel. Remember, those two agreements reached by presidents Clinton and President Carter and Clinton, and that has had enormous significance for keeping what stability we have had, what equilibrium we have had in that entire region. And remember again that there are other Arab governments watching what were doing.

SIMON: Is this a little bit at odds for what the president said in 2009 in Cairo?

ELVING: It is indeed, because there he was identifying himself, if you will, with legitimate aspirations and grievances of the millions and tens of millions of people not only in Egypt, which is the largest country in the region, 80 million and more, but also in other Arab countries as well and throughout the emerging world. Thats what we were trying to do in Cairo in 2009 and now we see where some of the fruits of that can come.

SIMON: And the White House wanted to talk about something else, other things this week, didn't it?

ELVING: Yes. They wanted a comeback strategy this month based on the Tucson speech and the State of the Union speech. Win the future was the phrase they wanted on everyone's lips this weekend. They've got a new cast in the White House. They've got Bill Daley as the new chief of staff. They've got a new spokesperson in Jay Carney. They have a new political director in David Plouffe, who comes back from the campaign. This is what they wanted to be talking about, not an international crisis of these proportions.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Okay. Well, and thats life, and thats politics.

NPR senior editor, Washington, Ron Elving. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And youre listening to NPR News.

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