Dear friend: Lighten up on protesters.

That's the Bush administration's public advice to Egypt, one of its closest friends in the Arab world.

That sentiment was expressed Thursday by the State Department spokesman after thousands of riot police broke up pro-reform protests in Cairo and roughed up demonstrators.

The protests were in support of two Egyptian judges facing disciplinary action after they blew the whistle on election fraud.

"We are deeply concerned," spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement read to reporters at the department's daily media briefing.

He coupled concern with a warning that "we will be following up with the Egyptian government regarding our concerns and we will continue to push for political reform and freedom of speech and press."

The U.S. friendship with Egypt is rooted in the landmark Mideast peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which triggered U.S. gratitude in the form of approximately $2 billion in aid every year.

The treaty cracked a solid anti-Israel front among the Arabs and sparked more widespread peacemaking in the region.

As the Bush administration pushes its democracy program in the Middle East, and often comes in conflict with fundamentalist Muslim governments, Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak as well as the Egyptian populace stand out as pro-U.S. in their attitude and behavior.

But the Egyptian government has taken a tough new line against pro-democracy activists who have rallied around the judges and accuse Mubarak of retreating from promised reforms. In recent weeks, 48 activists have been arrested during demonstrations to support the judges.

McCormack said that reports of Egyptian police tactics against demonstrators and journalists covering the event were "particularly troubling."

And, he said, the U.S. government also was troubled by reports that detention of many of those arrested has been extended and new charges filed against them.

"We urge the Egyptian government to permit peaceful demonstrations on behalf of reform and civil liberties by those exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression," he said.

McCormack made it clear that it is not U.S. policy to tell Egypt what kind of political course to take. "The issue here," he said, "is whether or not people can peacefully protest, express freely their thoughts, their feelings about actions that their government has taken."

On the touchy subject of U.S. aid, the spokesman said the administration has continued to support Egypt even among rising criticism on Capitol Hill.

"That said, there are very clearly concerns on the part of our government, in the executive branch," McCormack said.

Directly criticizing Mubarak, he said the Egyptian president had not followed through on an election campaign promise last year to take freedom of expression into consideration while addressing a real threat of terrorism.

"Egypt is a good friend, Egypt is a good ally," he concluded. "We have a lot of common issues that we are working on together, certainly in fighting terrorism, certainly in trying to bring peace to the Middle East."

But "that said, when there are issues that arise... we are going to speak out very plainly about them," he said. "That's what friends do."