On the second day of clashes between pro-Mubarak forces and protesters, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologized during a news conference for the "fatal error" of not keeping the factions apart on Wednesday. As he spoke today, the army rounded up journalists and other foreign observers who could bear witness to the government crackdown.
"He invoked how the king of Egypt left in 1952 with honor and that a way should be found for the president to ultimately depart with honor. That is quite remarkable talk," said Telhami, a University of Maryland professor. "No one would have dared talk about it like that before."
Perhaps, but as the street battles continued, it appeared Mubarak was moving to tighten his grip and had not accepted that it was time to pack his bags.
So what is the Obama administration to do a day after it said "now means yesterday" for the transition to a new Egyptian leadership?
Condemnation appeared to be one option. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today sharply criticized growing attacks on journalists, diplomats, human rights activists and others and urged "the government and a broad and credible representation of Egypt's opposition, civil society and political factions to begin immediately serious negotiations on a peaceful and orderly transition."
Strong words may be the best that U.S. officials can offer.
"We don't have a lot of policy levers," said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Middle East politics at George Washington University. "Our statements over the last two days have grown pretty strong, but direct contact at this point seems a little less than civil."
Frank Wisner, the former U.S. diplomat dispatched to talk to Mubarak, left Egypt on Wednesday having done just about all that he could.
"If they thought it was useful to keep him around as a channel, they would have," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East negotiator with deep experience in Egypt. "It suggests to me that the private conversation with Mubarak is over."
Miller was among several experts interviewed by AOL News who saw few good options for American policymakers in a rapidly changing crisis whose twists and turns no one in Washington appears able to predict.
Clinton and President Barack Obama have repeatedly spoken out about the need for change in Egypt. They have set the tone for world and European leaders who have followed with similar statements.
Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, said that now that the character of the regime has been revealed in the chaos in Cairo's Tahrir Square, even stronger words are needed.
"This is really the moment of truth. This is a very dire situation with possibly significant, significant loss of life," he said. "The United States needs to exert all the pressure on Mr. Mubarak to exit the scene immediately" and not wait until elections are held in September.
Shehata said the longer the deadly crisis continues, the more hostility will build among Egyptians who have watched for nearly 30 years as American leaders have lavished Mubarak with aid and support. "If the United States does not come down on the right side at this moment, it risks severe, severe consequential damage" to its standing and credibility in the region, he said.
There has already been untold damage to American efforts to broker a lasting peace in the Middle East as Israel watches nervously as its most important strategic ally in the region descends into chaos. No one in Washington or Jerusalem can say for sure if a post-Mubarak government will honor Egypt's long-standing peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the influence that the United States can exert on the events unfolding on TV and on Twitter "is practically nonexistent," said Marina Ottaway, who directs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This is an internal Egyptian affair with a domestic dynamic, and the United States is not a player."
Others, citing the billions the United States gives Egypt in military aid, disagree.
"We must freeze military aid at once and make it clear that we condemn the brutal tactics he is employing," said neoconservative Elliott Abrams, a former adviser to President George W. Bush now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We should call upon him to step down now and say peace in Egypt can only come through his departure."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who heads the appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid, told Bloomberg TV that "if he doesn't leave, there will not be foreign aid."
Easier said than done, observes Ottaway. "We know from previous experience that decisions [by Congress] on cutting aid tend to be very slow," she said. Still, "we should suspend all foreign assistance until the situation is clarified."
"We tried that in Iraq, and it didn't work -- no one would have wanted the government we got," he said. Pressure from the Bush administration for democratic elections also helped make the militant Islamist group Hezbollah a major player in Lebanon and gave Hamas, its Palestinian equivalent, an opening to take over Gaza, he noted.
"This isn't about us, and the more it is about us, the more blowback we will get," Telhami said. "The administration has to take a principled position, but we are not going to be the ones who decide Egypt."
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