In a personal phone call on Jan. 29, the 86-year-old king cautioned the president against humiliating Mubarak and said Saudi Arabia would bankroll Egypt if the U.S. pulled its aid program -- which is worth $1.5 billion a year. A senior source in the Saudi capital Riyadh told the newspaper, "Mubarak and King Abdullah are not just allies, they are close friends, and the king is not about to see his friend cast aside."
That phone call adds to the Obama administration's Egyptian dilemma. The president is torn between supporting the largely secular pro-democracy protesters -- who for the past month have demanded Mubarak's resignation as well as economic and political reform -- and backing a repressive, authoritarian regime that has been a key ally in the Middle East for the past 30 years. He also has to maintain a good relationship with Saudi Arabia -- a key U.S. energy supplier and one of America's last allies in the region.
In another report that could complicate Obama's foreign policy, The Guardian said the Egyptian army -- which the U.S. had hoped would be an impartial force for stability in the country -- is alleged to have detained, beaten and tortured hundreds of pro-democracy supporters. Human rights groups say that other protesters have "disappeared" after being taken into army custody.
"Their range is very wide, from people who were at the protests or detained for breaking curfew to those who talked back at an army officer or were handed over to the army for looking suspicious or for looking like foreigners even if they were not," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the newspaper. "It's unusual, and to the best of our knowledge, it's also unprecedented for the army to be doing this."
The Egyptian military has a lot to lose if Mubarak falls. Under his rule, the armed forces have secured control of numerous industries, from food to construction and even vehicle production. Time magazine notes that the military's business empire probably accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Egypt's $210 billion economy.
Abdullah also knows that the toppling of Mubarak could endanger his privileged position. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia has a young population -- 70 percent of the country's almost 19 million citizens are under age 30 -- and a growing unemployment rate. Young Saudis are increasingly calling for more democratic rights, better education and job opportunities. If Egyptians secure real reform through mass rallies, the Saudis might start staging similar demonstrations at home. That would threaten the Saudi monarchy's total grip on power.
There's some evidence that Abdullah's intervention has influenced Washington's Egypt policy. Within a few hours of the king's call, notes the Times, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton filmed five interviews for Sunday morning TV talk shows. In each one, she praised Mubarak for his friendship with the U.S. and called for an "orderly transition" of power.
However, Obama's team hasn't heeded all of Saudi Arabia's demands. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the supposedly concessionary steps taken by the Egyptian government -- such as promising that Mubarak would step down in September -- have not yet "met a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt." He added that the U.S. believed "more needs to be done."
Earlier that day, Vice President Joe Biden demanded that the regime stop harassing protesters and include more opposition members in talks about how to end the current crisis. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, rejected those calls during an interview Wednesday with PBS and said Washington should stop trying to impose its will on Cairo.
That wave of industrial action is continuing today. About 2,000 petroleum sector employees are now protesting and demanding better pay and transparency in executive salaries, CNN reports. Railway, steel industry and Suez port authority employees have also taken to the streets.
The strikes have led to fears that the Suez Canal -- a major oil transport route -- could be shut down, causing a sudden spike in gas prices. But the Egyptian government has insisted the military will ensure that the canal remains open.