White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dodged questions Monday about the administration’s stance on the political unrest in Cairo and insisted that the people of Egypt, not the United States, must decide if and how they want to install a new president.
“We’re not picking between those on the street and those in the government,” Gibbs said during a briefing.
President Barack Obama has been scrambling for the past week to stay on top of the escalating chaos in Cairo, where tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demand the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the face of rampant poverty and corruption. Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years, has so far only responded by reshuffling his government.
The upheaval leaves Obama in the position of needing to defend a crucial U.S. ally in the Arab world while also endorsing the calls of the Egyptian people for freedom and fair elections. White House officials continue to call for “an orderly transition” but stop short of proposing what the next steps should be.
“This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise. The United States has a close partnership with Egypt, and we’ve cooperated on many issues, including working together to advance a more peaceful region,” Obama said Friday at the White House.
But he also said: “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.”
Gibbs said the United States will play no role in deciding who ends up on the ballot in Egypt’s next election. “The question is whether or not those elections are going to be free and fair. That’s what we would weigh in on and weigh in on strongly,” he said.
The White House spokesman added that he did not know of anyone at the White House talking to Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s high-profile advocate of democratic reform, since the protests began last week.
Pressed on whether the administration’s calls for an orderly transition mean that it is seeking a regime change, Gibbs said it is “not for our country or government to determine” whether Mubarak should be removed from office.
“We’re calling for a change in the way the country works,” he said.