WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States expressed confidence in Egypt's government on Tuesday and urged calm amid the largest public protests in years.
It was an awkward endorsement of an authoritarian regime that is a crucial Arab ally for Washington.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government of President Hosni Mubarak is stable and trying to respond to the needs of protesters. Egyptians gathered in thousands in Cairo to protest Mubarak and his three-decade grip on power. Some hurled rocks and clashed with riot police.
Clinton said Egyptians have the right to protest, but urged demonstrators and the government to avoid violence.
"We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence," Clinton said at a news conference in Washington.
The Cairo demonstration was inspired by the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime leader in nearby Tunisia.
In both cases the Obama administration was caught in a difficult spot, defending the democratic right of protest for citizens too often silenced in many Arab countries without openly subverting a long-standing Mideast partner.
The United States is Egypt's largest foreign patron, with more than $1.5 billion in aid last year, a legacy of Egypt's break with Arab resistance to Israel. Egypt was the first Arab nation to recognize Israel more than three decades ago.
Although the United States has complained publicly about Mubarak's political chokehold and human rights abuses, collapse of his government could jeopardize U.S. goals in the Middle East from defense of Israel to containment of militant Islamic political movements.
"Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," Clinton said.
Protests over corruption, poverty, police abuse and other problems have spread among the Arabs, with Tunisia's example inspiring similar, smaller movements in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.
Clinton spoke after a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez. She said she was encouraged by the prospects of "inclusive elections that will be held soon as practicable" in Tunisia, where unrest forced President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali to flee on Jan. 14.
Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Tunisia on Tuesday to demand the ouster of remaining members of Ben Ali's government, and it is unclear how far-reaching political change will be.
A day earlier authorities fired tear gas at protesters in the same area, and some demonstrators shattered the windows of police cars.
"There's a long way to go," Clinton cautioned. "There's no experience; there's no institutional memory about how to do this."
She said she spoke to Tunisia's foreign minister and interim prime minister in recent days, and the United States, the European Union and the United Nations were offering the country support.
The goal, Clinton said, was a "democratic, vibrant outcome" for Tunisia.
Speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, Alan Goulty, Britain's ambassador to Tunisia from 2004 to 2008, said the uprising in the north African country was largely unanticipated.
Unemployment, for instance, was about 5 percent, far below other countries in the area.
Associated Press Diplomatic Correspondent Barry Schweid contributed to this report.