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Last updated: February 3, 2011 12:39 am
Fears mounted in Washington and around the world that the upheaval in Egypt was spiralling out of control, as the US and its allies issued their strongest condemnation of President Hosni Mubarak’s tactics to stay in power.
US officials from President Barack Obama down have registered their profound disappointment at Mr Mubarak’s response to the protests, pushing him to begin talks with the opposition immediately or else face a swift exit from office.
The administration on Wednesday condemned what it described as the “outrageous and horrible violence” instigated by pro-Mubarak forces, the continuing shutdown of internet and mobile phone services and Cairo’s reluctance to begin a transition towards free elections.
In a phone call to Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s new vice-president, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, called for the violence to stop and for the transition to begin immediately.
“Either the government has to take far more aggressive action to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people or the pressure will continue to build for Mubarak to step aside,” said a senior administration official. “If the government is trying to meet his desire to stay until September, they have got to move far faster on the transition ... Muddling through and hoping the demonstrators go away is not likely to be successful.”
Egypt’s foreign ministry issued an angry response to the calls by western governments. Such demands from “foreign parties” were “rejected and aimed to incite the internal situation in Egypt”, it said.
The US official added that the violence in Tahrir Square and elsewhere appeared to be a clear attempt to intimidate the protesters. Three people were killed and 637 injured in the clashes, according to state television, quoting health ministry reports.
Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama’s spokesman, said: “If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately.”
David Cameron, British prime minister, issued a similar warning. “If it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable,” he said. “These are despicable scenes and they should not be repeated.”
As images of chaos continued to be broadcast, Mr Gibbs said Washington was concerned about reports of food and fuel shortages in some Egyptian cities. The White House has been wary of issuing clear calls for Mr Mubarak to depart, because of concern such calls might deepen the Egyptian president’s determination to stay in office and because other authoritarian governments such as Saudi Arabia could take them as evidence the US was an unreliable ally.
Officials maintain that if Mr Mubarak is persuaded to go, it will be by his small inner circle and by the Egyptian military. One important factor may be his desire to die in Egypt, which he expressed in his address to the nation on Tuesday and which could play a role in negotiations.
The US is now making more explicit calls than before. “We want to see free, fair and credible elections,” said the state department. “The sooner that can happen, the better.”
It added that a transition would involve “a national dialogue, a serious conversation among a variety of players ... [a] time where the government has to take meaningful, serious steps, concrete steps, to demonstrate it is moving down a path to elections and to democratic governments”.
The administration is particularly nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood because of the Islamist group’s hostility to Israel, but has also signalled it should play a role.
The German government threw its weight behind the protest movement for “freedom and democracy”, calling for immediate steps to be taken to bring all political forces in Egypt together to contribute towards a transformation.
Additional reporting by Quentin Peel in Berlin
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