WASHINGTON — The US Senate late Thursday unanimously approved a symbolic resolution urging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to create a caretaker government but stopping short of urging him to step down.
Shocked and angered by television images of Mubarak supporters charging anti-government demonstrators, lawmakers called for quick, "concrete" steps towards transforming the staunch US ally into a representative democracy.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said the non-binding measure was deliberately silent on whether Mubarak could play a role in what it described as an "inclusive" caretaker government formed with the opposition.
"He could be part of it, he couldn't, depends on what they (the Egyptians) all agree to," he told reporters before the vote. "We want them to make that kind of choice, and not narrow the options here."
Kerry, who crafted the measure with senior Republican Senator John McCain, said the goal was to showcase US unity and "to begin to pull Egypt out of this chaotic confrontation and begin to embrace the aspirations of the people."
McCain has led a growing chorus of calls in the US Congress for Mubarak to step down immediately, a stiffening of criticism for the longtime US ally after bloody clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square drew outrage in Washington.
"This is a seminal moment in the history of the Middle East and the world," said McCain. "Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world, and what we have been watching unfold in the last week has grieved all of us."
"And there is every possibility that this crisis lurches into a genuine massacre, and we cannot afford that, and we must do everything in our power to see that it stops," he said on the Senate floor.
US officials and lawmakers have denounced attacks and arrests targeting reporters covering the unprecedented protests against Mubarak's ironfisted decades of rule.
Though silent on Mubarak's immediate fate, the measure looked beyond his rule, urging any future Egyptian government to abide by the country's landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel and to ensure free passage of international trade through the Suez Canal.
And it expressed "deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood" -- which is banned but remains the country's strongest organized opposition group.
The resolution urged Mubarak to "immediately begin an orderly and peaceful transition to a democratic political system" by transferring power to an "inclusive" caretaker government "in coordination with leaders from Egypt's opposition, civil society, and military."
The purpose of the transitional government will be "to enact the necessary reforms to hold free, fair, and internationally credible elections this year," according to the resolution.
The bill also called for "concrete steps to be taken as soon as possible," including ending a state of emergency, allowing independent political parties to form, and allowing international scrutiny of the elections.
The measure also acknowledged the long alliance between Washington and Mubarak's government, and appeals on all sides in the unrest in Egypt to refrain from violence, and urges respect for media freedoms.
The Senate "supports freedom of the press and strongly condemns the intimidation, targeting or detention of journalists," and urges "maximum professionalism and restraint" from Egypt's military.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said US lawmakers "do not want the Egyptian military to encourage thugs, we do not want the Egyptian military to be a party to increased violence."
"The Egyptian military is the most respected institution in Egypt, and they risk turning the people of Egypt against them unless they act as a genuine peacemaker in Egypt," he said.
The House of Representatives was not in session this week, but aides said it could weigh in upon its return next week.