UPDATE 3-Obama ratchets up pressure on Egypt's Mubarak

Thu Jan 27, 2011 10:29pm GMT

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By Matt Spetalnick and David Alexander

WASHINGTON Jan 27 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday to make "absolutely critical" political reforms, ratcheting up pressure on a key U.S. ally in the face of street protests seeking his ouster.

Weighing in for the first time after three days of Egyptian unrest, Obama was careful to avoid any sign of abandoning Mubarak but made clear his sympathy for demonstrators he said were expressing "pent-up frustrations" after decades of authoritarian rule.

Obama and his aides are performing a delicate balancing act as political upheaval rocks the Middle East, from Egypt to Tunisia to Lebanon to Yemen, catching his administration off-guard and showing the limits of U.S. influence.

While making a point of describing Mubarak as "very helpful on a range of tough issues," Obama sent him a blunt message to heed the demands of anti-government protesters for expanded democratic rights.

"I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform -- political reform, economic reform -- is absolutely critical for the long-term well-being of Egypt," Obama said as he answered questions from an online audience on the YouTube website.

Even with its more assertive tone, the Obama administration seemed to be juggling its desire for a return to Middle Eastern stability, its support for democratic principles and its determination to avoid the rise of an anti-U.S. Islamist government in Cairo potentially allied with Iran.

"This isn't a choice between the government and the people of Egypt," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. "This is not about taking sides."   Continued...

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