Egyptian protesters are stopped by a line of police during demonstrations in Cairo on Jan. 28, 2011. (Photo: Scott Nelson/The New York Times)
Washington - President Barack Obama dramatically increased pressure Friday on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to overhaul the political system in response to nationwide protests, telling Mubarak it's time to open "a meaningful dialogue" with his opponents.
Obama spoke by phone from the White House with Mubarak shortly after the Egyptian leader announced that he'd fired his government and would appoint a new one Saturday. Obama told Mubarak "he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."
In his televised appearance, the president also called on Mubarak's government to refrain from violence against protesters and "to reverse the actions that they've taken" to shut off virtually all Internet access and cell phone service.
Obama's remarks were the most blunt from the U.S. government since the protests began Tuesday, and suggested that Mubarak's days in power could be numbered following the worst violence in 60 years.
Privately, a senior U.S. official questioned whether Mubarak understood the depths of popular unrest in his country.
"The real question is to what extent does the government really understand what is happening in the streets and the implications of what is happening in the streets? Based on that, do the fissures grow or narrow?" said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
"What you are seeing here is the long-term de-legitimization of the Mubarak government," he added.
Egypt receives $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, but remains to be seen how the country's 82-year-old strongman responds to Obama. So far, Mubarak has largely ignored U.S .calls for restraint, sending tanks into the streets Friday to quell spreading unrest.
"I don't think they're listening," said Jon Alterman, an Egypt specialist and director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mubarak and his advisers appear willing to risk damaging ties with the U.S. to stay in power, Alterman said.
The top priority of Mubarak and his aging lieutenants has been maintaining their rule, and they would have resisted any changes that they viewed as endangering their grip on power, experts said.
"Insofar as the perception of Mubarak and his seniors are that they have to do certain firm things to stay in power, no advice from any power, be it the U.S. or anyone else, is going to make that much difference in the end," said Paul Pillar, a former top U.S. intelligence analyst for the Middle East now with Georgetown University's security studies program.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced Friday that the administration is reviewing U.S. aid to Egypt. But it remains unclear if that will result in significant cutbacks in assistance to one of Washington's most reliable Arab allies.
Obama requested $1.5 billion for Egypt in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, including $1.3 billion in military aid.
Separately, the State Department advised U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Egypt, where Internet and cell phone service has been cut, and the government has ordered a curfew.
Obama and his senior aides are walking the diplomatic equivalent of a slippery tightrope, eager to show sympathy with the protesters without being blamed for pulling the plug on Mubarak, who has supported U.S. efforts to make Middle East peace, fight Islamic radicals and contain Iran.
As the week has worn on, they have steadily toughened their message to the Mubarak government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sidestepped a question about Mubarak's future on Friday, while Gibbs declined to offer a U.S. endorsement. "We're monitoring a very fluid situation," he said.
In a discordant note, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday had appeared to express continuing U.S. support for the Egyptian leader.
"Mubarak has been an ally of ours on a number of things. . . . I would not refer to him as a dictator," Biden said on the PBS "NewsHour."
Underscoring deep, long-standing U.S.-Egyptian ties, an Egyptian military delegation led by Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army, was in Washington this week for Pentagon meetings. The delegation, which had been expected to stay until Feb. 2, departed for home Friday.
Dozens of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks drive home how the Obama administration, while publicly backing Mubarak, faced stiff resistance to its quiet efforts to persuade his regime to allow greater political freedom and curtail abuses such as police brutality.
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey drove home Mubarak's determination to stay in power in a May 19, 2009, briefing on Mubarak that she sent to Clinton in preparation for the Egyptian leader's visit to Washington that August.
She noted the tense relations with Egypt over the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq and its "name and shame" policy of pushing Mubarak to publicly criticize his regime's poor human rights record, an approach abandoned by Obama.
"No issue demonstrates Mubarak's worldview more than his reaction to demands that he open Egypt to genuine political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services," Scobey wrote. "Even though he will be more willing to consider ideas and steps he might take pursuant to a less public dialogue, his basic understanding of his country and the region predisposes him toward extreme caution."
"We have heard him lament previous U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world," she continued.
Mubarak's greatest concern, she wrote, is the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic opposition party that commands considerable support and whose leaders have been prime targets of regime oppression.
"In Mubarak's mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole," Scobey said.
A July 30, 2009, cable quoted Ali El Deen Hilal, a top official of the ruling National Democratic Party, telling a new U.S. Embassy political officer that the military and the security forces would ensure a smooth transition of power when Mubarak was ready.
"Politically motivated unrest . . . was not likely because it was not part of the 'Egyptian mentality.' Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing that would bring Egyptians to the streets en masse," Hilal was quoted as saying.
(Margaret Talev and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)