Obama on Egypt: Reform "Absolutely Critical" in the Long-Term

Sunlen Miller and Kirit Radia report: President Obama today reiterated that Egypt is an ally of the United States and that the he’s “always said” to President Hosni Mubarak that reform, both politically and economically, is essential for Egypt.

“Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues,” Obama said from the White House this afternoon, “President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform -- political reform, economic reform -- is absolutely critical to the long-term well being of Egypt.”

The president’s comments today came during a YouTube town hall, where he was asked via a video submission what he thought of the Egyptian government blocking social networks during the protests this week. After being shown some YouTube videos from this week in Cairo, President Obama said that you can see the “pent-up frustrations” being displayed on the streets.

“My main hope right now is, is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence. “

The president said that it is also important that people have mechanisms in order to express “legitimate grievances.”

“There are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that, I think, is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.”

Anti-Mubarak protests have spread throughout Egypt this week and the country is bracing itself for an even bigger outpouring of anger tomorrow as the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, has called for a “day of rage” on Friday. Today Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who aspires to run for president against Mubarak, returned to Cairo to try to galvanize the largely leader-less demonstrations.

The protests in Egypt, which some say are the largest there since Mubarak came to power 30 years ago, came after similar anti-government protests in nearby Tunisia brought down another longtime strongman there.

The United States has walked a fine line as the situation intensified in this week in Egypt. The Obama administration has tried to show support for the protester’s rights to assemble and voice their opinion while encouraging the Egyptian government to reform before it, too, is toppled.

Egypt and President Mubarak are considered a key strategic ally to the United States and a lynchpin in the region. Egypt is one of only two Arab countries that recognizes Israel and President Mubarak was invited to the White House to launch the latest round of Mideast peace talks year. Successive American administrations, however, have overlooked human rights abuses and the veneer of democracy there in exchange for Egypt’s support in the region.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged all parties to show restraint but carefully urged the Egyptian government to reform before it is too late.

“We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites. We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she told reporters.

Those remarks backed off from her comment a day earlier that “the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

As protests spread to Yemen today, home to another dictator who is allied with the United States against terror elements in the country, Secretary Clinton’s warning to regional leaders earlier this month to reform their political systems before it is too late seems prophetic.

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she said at the Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar.

The next day, Tunisia’s president was forced to flee the country amid the mounting protests.

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