Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) both said independently today that the Egyptian government should cease the use of violence against protesters but only Kerry called for free and fair elections this year.
"I call on the Egyptian government and security forces to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters and to respect the human rights of its citizens to seek greater participation in their own government," Clinton said on Friday. She called on President Hosni Mubarak's government to cease blocking communications inside Egypt and allow peaceful protests.
"These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away," Clinton said.
That's stronger than Vice President Joseph Biden's comments on Thursday night on PBS News Hour, when he said about Mubarak, "I would not refer to him as a dictator," noting that the protesters grievances should be heard "if they are" legitimate.
Kerry echoed Clinton's message, issuing a statement on Friday praising Egypt as an "important American ally" but also calling on both the protesters and government forces to cease violence. But he went one step further than the administration in calling on Mubarak to actually hold free elections.
"In the case of Egypt, President Mubarak has the opportunity to quell the unrest by guaranteeing that a free and open democratic process will be in place when the time comes to choose the country's next leader later this year," the statement read.
The presidential elections in Egypt are September. Open elections don't seem to be what Mubarak has in mind, considering that he placed Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohammed el-Baradei, a potential presidential contender, under house arrest. But it does reveal the gap between the Obama administration and many on Capitol Hill about what the American stance regarding Egypt should be as the crisis continues.
The administration is caught between the longstanding U.S. allegiance to Mubarak and its desire not to look or soft on human rights or complicit with Mubarak's harsh tactics in dealing with the protestors. The messaging has been shifting over the course of the three-day unrest, due to internal and outside pressure on the administration to speak out more about the issue of democracy.
"We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government to realize their aspirations to live in a democratic society that respects basic human rights," Clinton said on Friday, adding a line about democracy to the official message. No one has yet said anything, however, about breaking with Mubarak altogether.
Even the White House has been getting somewhat stronger without crossing the line into supporting a free election outright. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Twitter Friday, "Very concerned about violence in Egypt."
Meanwhile, there are indications that the administration is confused about how to proceed. Reports said that the White House will convene a rare Saturday principles-level meeting to discuss options going forward. That follows a 40-minute session on Friday morning on Egypt that replaced the daily security briefing
Around Washington, the calls for the Obama administration to come out more forcefully on the issue are increasing. The "Working Group of Egypt," a bipartisan expert group that includes the Carnegie Endowment fellows Bob Kagan and Michelle Dunne, CAP's Brian Katulis, FPI's Ellen Bork, among others, issued a statement calling on Obama to press for free elections.
"The administration should press for constitutional and administrative changes necessary for a free and competitive presidential election open to candidates without restrictions, supervised by judges and monitored by domestic and international observers," they wrote.
One Egypt expert in Washington noticed that the statements from the administration seem to be moving away from support of Mubarak as the situation on the ground changes.
"They're shifting their statements to cover their ass in case Mubarak is overthrown. They were caught by surprise here as they were in Tunisia," the expert said.
"The administration is in disarray, they don't know what to do. On the one hand, they're scared about what do without Mubarak. On the other hand, they don't want to appear to have blood of the protesters on their hands."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.