WASHINGTON — Egypt's deepest political turmoil in years poses sudden and painful diplomatic choices for President Barack Obama, who wants to show solidarity with Egyptian protesters without undermining one of Washington's closest Arab allies.
Unlike Tunisia, where protests earlier this month overthrew an autocratic ruler but where the U.S. wasn't as closely tied to the government, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has received decades of U.S. support and tens of billions in military and economic aid.
Already, the protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, while primarily about internal changes, have taken on a patina of anti-Americanism.
"It is a bit like Iran in the 1970s," said Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor who recently ended a stint on the State Department's policy planning staff. He was referring to the massive protests that in January 1979 brought down the Shah of Iran, who at the time was America's closest ally in the Middle East.
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It remains to be seen whether the protests, which on Wednesday were met with tear gas and beatings by Egyptian police, will peter out or spread, much less oust the aging Mubarak, who's ruled since 1981.
Still, the challenge is clear, Jentleson said.
"We have to be dexterous enough not to say, 'What's good for Mubarak is good for us'," he said. "At the same time, you can't be known as abandoning an ally" at the first sign of trouble.
Egypt's importance to U.S. policy is unquestionable. It is the most populous Arab country, it's one of just two Arab nations that have signed a peace treaty with Israel, and it's traditionally the center for trends that ripple across the Arab word.
Obama and his top aides have reacted carefully to the events in Egypt.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that "we support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And 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 said at a joint appearance with Jordan's foreign minister.
Clinton had Tuesday called Egypt "stable." But Wednesday, it seemed anything but, with protesters clashing with riot police and, in at least one instance, ripping down a huge poster of Mubarak.
Karim Haggag, a spokesman for Egypt's embassy in Washington, disputed widespread reports that the government had attempted to block social networking sites used by the protesters. "Those reports are false. Facebook was not been blocked. Twitter has not been blocked," he said.
Amr Hamzawy, research director for the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center, praised the administration's handling of the situation thus far.
Obama and Clinton reacted relatively quickly, he said in a telephone interview from Cairo, and "they have stated . . . that the demands of Egyptians are legitimate."
The events in Egypt are just one of at least four simultaneous crises that one diplomat, requesting anonymity to speak frankly, termed a "perfect storm."
In Tunisia, there's ongoing political uncertainty. In Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah has gathered enough power to name the new prime minister. And in Palestinian areas, the moderate, U.S.-backed leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has been undermined by documents outlining concessions he allegedly made in negotiations with Israel.
The unexpected events could force the Obama administration to better define its approach to the sticky subject of democracy in the Middle East.
Former President George W. Bush publicly pushed a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East, but quickly backed down after Hamas radicals won political power in Palestinian elections in 2006.
Obama has been less aggressive about elections, but the administration still has prodded Arab leaders to embrace changes. That was the theme of Clinton's remarks two weeks ago in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
"In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," she said then. "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. If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum."
For now, the White House appears to be hoping that Mubarak, 82, will respond to the protesters with real political and social overhauls.
That appears unlikely, however.
"His basic understanding of his country and the region predisposes him to extreme caution. We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world," the U.S. ambassador in Egypt, Margaret Scobey, wrote in a May 2009 cable made public by the WikiLeaks website.
Wayne White, who was a senior State Department intelligence analyst for the Middle East, said that in recent years, "Mubarak has become even more repressive — less able to handle the checks and balances" that would be needed in a more pluralistic Egypt.
"The moment's passed for his regime" in terms of instituting reforms, White said.
Obama and his aides "have to be very careful," he said. "But for the moment, they have to assume Mubarak's going to weather the storm."
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)
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