US tougher on Egypt, Arabs

Jakarta Post-The United States sharpened its response to political upheaval and brutal crackdowns in Egypt, telling its closest ally in the Arab world it must respond to its people’s yearnings for democracy as the largest political protests in years swept Cairo streets.

But with no clear picture emerging of a democratic and pro-Western alternative to the three-decade rule of Egypt’s authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, it was unclear how hard the United States was willing to press its case.

A day after delivering a measured response to Egypt’s demonstrations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Wednesday that Egypt had to adopt democratic and other reforms and allow peaceful protests. She told Cairo to lay off social media sites like Facebook and Twitter even as activists are using them to organize street gatherings and destabilize the government.

The White House declined a direct opportunity to affirm support for Mubarak, who traveled to Washington to meet President Barack Obama just four months ago. Asked if the administration still backed Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would say only: “Egypt is a strong ally.”

The tougher tone came as the US struggles to confront an explosion of instability in the Middle East as Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen rebel against decades of political repression. Adding to the confluence of crises is the emergence of an Iranian-backed militant movement as Lebanon’s dominant force and potentially embarrassing revelations creating new obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Meanwhile, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sanaa on Thursday to demand a change of government, inspired by the unrest that has ousted Tunisia’s leader and spread to Egypt this week.

“The people want a change in president,” shouted protesters who gathered at Sanaa University for one of the demonstrations scattered across the city, in the largest of a wave of anti-government protests.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key ally of the United States in a war against a resurgent Yemeni arm of al Qaeda, has ruled the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state for over 30 years.

At least 10,000 protesters gathered at Sanaa University and around 6,000 more elsewhere in Sanaa in protests organised by Yemen’s opposition coalition, Reuters witnesses said. Police watched but no clashes were reported.

Protesters said they were demanding improvements in living conditions as well as political change. One banner read: “Enough playing around, enough corruption, look at the gap between poverty and wealth.”

A competing pro-government protest organized by Yemen’s ruling party in another district of Sanaa gathered a few hundred demonstrators, witnesses said.

At least 100 troops from Yemen’s security forces spread across a square where many banks are located, though there were no protesters there, a Reuters witness said.

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