WASHINGTON -- While declining to say whether the United States should consider withholding foreign aid to Egypt, Sen. Harry Reid on Monday called for an "orderly transition to democracy" in the country now mired in chaos.
During a telephone call with reporters, the Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader echoed the Obama administration's message on the protest movement against the strong-arm Egyptian government. The way Egypt operates must change, he said.
"I am deeply concerned about the situation in Egypt," Reid said. "We are watching an historic moment that will not be resolved until the legitimate concerns of the Egyptian people have been addressed."
Rep. Shelley Berkley, meanwhile, said Egypt "is a volatile situation and the United States cannot afford to get this one wrong." She said the Obama administration's handling of the crisis was "so far so good."
Reid said he was briefed on Sunday by State Department Undersecretary William Burns, and the administration "is totally on top of this."
He called for the Egyptian government to allow people access to the Internet and to cell phone use, following the cutoff of online services. "I support the universally recognized rights of the people to freedom of speech, assembly and association," Reid said.
Berkley, D-Nev., said in an interview she was encouraged that 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, seems to be emerging as a consensus successor to President Hosni Mubarak, the target of protesters.
"...The worst thing that can happen would be a void in leadership wherein the Muslim Brotherhood and every other terrorist organization in the Middle East rushes in fill that void," said Berkley, a former member of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
Berkley declared herself no fan of Mubarak, whom she has called "the most arrogant and dictatorial person in the Middle East." Still, she said, "he has been of benefit to the United States" in keeping some measure of peace in the region.
But now, "Mubarak's days are numbered and the number is lower than higher," Berkley said. While she has traveled to the region, she said she boycotted Egypt, not convinced it was doing enough to stem the flow of "contraband" to Palestinians in the adjoining Gaza Strip who periodically launch rockets into Israel.
Berkley said the United States must exercise caution, as its influence in Egypt is limited in the crisis.
"We can't appear, and shouldn't appear, to be anxious to overthrow a leader who has been a strong ally to the United States," she said of Mubarak. "That would send a very bad signal to other moderate Arab countries. On the other hand, we can't appear, and shouldn't appear, as if we are propping up a dictator who has done an extraordinary disservice to his people."
In his talk with reporters, Reid sidestepped a question as to whether the United States should halt foreign aid to Egypt, amounting to about $1.5 billion annually.
He said support for the Obama administration's watchful approach to Egypt appears to be bipartisan so far.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.