President Obama spoke on the situation in Egypt last night, and he continued to walk a tightrope on the issue, rallying for the “universal rights” of the Egyptian people but not abandoning President Hosni Mubarak, who earlier fired his cabinet but refused to step down from his 30-year rule.

Obama mirrored other US government officials who have spoken today by saying that the “Egyptian authorities must refrain from violence against peaceful protesters,” and respect the human rights of the citizenry. But “at the same time, those in the streets have the responsibility to be peaceful.”

The President hoped that this “moment of volatility” could be turned into a “moment of promise.” He said it’s clear that there must be political, social and economic reforms “that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.” The President spoke to Hosni Mubarak shortly after his speech to the people of Egypt, and he said this: “When President Mubarak spoke, he pledged a better democracy. I just spoke to him, and told him that he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words. I told President Mubarak he has a responsibility towards his people. What is needed right now are concrete steps.”

Obama said that the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people, and that suppressing ideas never succeed in making them go away. “The Egyptian people want a better life and a government that is fair just and responsive,” Obama said. He added that he would work with all quarters, the government and the people in the street, to that end. Finally, he quoted his own speech in Cairo back in 2009, saying that governments rule “by consent, not coercion.”

There’s a discordance to this rhetoric, matched with a call to continue to work with the Mubarak government. It’s an extremely cautious take. The question is whether Mubarak will take the statement as a threat, that his future support from the United States depends on the ability to make concrete reforms in the coming days. We don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.

David Dayen

David Dayen