January 28th, 2011
10:23 AM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Just three days after a State of the Union Address that President Obama's own aides say was 80 percent devoted to the economy and domestic issues, the pressing national security issue of unrest in Egypt has suddenly vaulted to the top of the commander-in-chief's agenda as he struggles with how closely he wants to stand with a longtime U.S. ally, President Hosni Mubarak.
White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama has been getting regular briefings on the unfolding situation throughout the week, and the president got a special memo with the latest information on Friday morning.
"The president has requested multiple briefings each day on the situation in the Middle East," said Vietor. "Today, he received a memo updating him on the latest in Egypt from National Security Advisor Tom Donilon."
Vietor added that Obama will get even more on the latest intelligence on Friday during his Presidential Daily Briefing, which is focused each day on sensitive material dealing with pressing national security issues.
Asked if there have been any direct telephone calls between Obama and Mubarak, Vietor said, "The president has not called President Mubarak, but there is daily contact between the U.S. and Egyptian governments through various channels, including the embassies and other organizations in which President Obama's messages and concerns are relayed."
The president publicly expressed some of those concerns about Mubarak's reaction to the protests on Wednesday, during a Q&A session moderated by You Tube in which Obama took questions from the general public.
"My main hope right now is, is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt, so the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence," Obama said. "And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances."
Obama and top officials in his administration are in the awkward position of deciding how closely to stand with the repressive Mubarak, who has been in power for 30 years and is now cracking down on protesters and cutting off social media.
"As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns," Obama said. "And that I think is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States."
It's hard to overstate how pivotal Mubarak has been to the U.S. in bringing stability to the region over the years, including help to the Obama administration on building international support to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions as well as trying to bring together the Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to forge Mideast peace. All of that makes this a tough balancing act for Obama.
"Let me say, first of all, that Egypt has been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues," Obama said during the You Tube session. "They made peace with Israel. President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform - political reform, economic reform - is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.
When the protests first sprung up earlier in the week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was twice asked if the White House still backed Mubarak directly, and he twice fell back on quotes declaring that Egypt in general is an ally of the U.S.
Vice President Joe Biden is also trying to walk that same fine line, refusing to call the Egyptian leader a dictator in an interview with PBS on Thursday, while also noting that Mubarak needs to make changes to his government and let his people taste freedom.
Asked specifically by Jim Lehrer if it is time for Mubarak to "stand aside," Biden said, "No I think the time has come for President Mubarak to move in the direction to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there."
Biden added the protesters are "middle class folks who are looking for a little more access a little more opportunity and the two things we've been saying Jim is that violence isn't appropriate and people have the right to protest and so we think that I hope I think that Mubarak president Mubarak will is going to respond to the legitimate concerns that are being raised."