The Obama administration on Tuesday sharply stepped up its criticism of Egypt's ruling council for its role in a wave of violence that has left 29 dead in the last four days, and demanded that military leaders hand over power to civilians as promised before July.
The standoff since Saturday has become Egypt's most sustained challenge to nine months of military rule and has plunged the country into crisis. While the United States was slow to back the protesters who ended Hosni Mubarak's three-decade authoritarian rule, it is now scrambling to leverage what little influence it still has to ensure the Egyptian military sticks to its election timeline and adopts a softer approach to the civil unrest.
That's because the U.S. still sees the council of generals under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as the best hope to shepherd Egypt's difficult transition to democracy. The ideal transition would start with free and fair parliamentary elections next week and end with a civilian president taking the reins by the end of June, as Tantawi promised Tuesday. But much of that vision depends on civil order being re-established.
"The violence needs to stop," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One. "The Egyptians need to be able to decide their future and decide it in a peaceful manner."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Monday called the deaths "deplorable," but refused to directly criticize Egyptian authorities. She spoke Tuesday in far shaper terms.
"We condemn the excessive force used by the police," Nuland said Tuesday. "We strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves."
Tantawi tried Tuesday to meet some of the demands of Egypt's demonstrators, announcing presidential elections by the end of June. But the major concession was immediately rejected by tens of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square, who responded with chants of "leave, leave" now. Authorities said protesters were attempting to storm the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police.
The demonstrators say the military council should step down immediately and hand over authority to a "salvation government" run by civilians and unimpeded by the top army brass. "The people want to bring down the field marshal," they shouted in scenes starkly reminiscent of the uprising that ousted Mubarak.
For the Obama administration, the instability reflects a somewhat similar dilemma to nine months ago. It wants to stand with the Egyptian people and for democracy, but fears instability or the rise of intolerant, post-revolution populism as occurred in Iran some three decades ago.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that "if, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest."
But the U.S. is also trying not to push too hard with a military it worked closely with under Mubarak and can still serve as a crucial partner in a part of the world where al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists still pose a threat to the United States, and where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to hamper American relations with Arab countries. On top of that, a collapse of the elections process could provide a devastating example for a Middle East that is still largely in revolt.
Underlining the uncertainty of the moment, Nuland balanced her criticism of Egypt's authorities with praise of Tantawi for promising to hold elections on time and give up power quicker than previously proposed. "These are important reassurances," she said, adding that the U.S. would hold them to their commitments.
Separately, the State Department also sought to address concerns that U.S.-manufactured tear gas was being used in Egypt to quell the protests. Nuland said no U.S. security assistance money was used by Egypt to purchase tear gas canisters, and that no sales were being considered for licensing currently. However, she conceded there were past sales by private American companies.