President Obama is briefed on the events in Egypt during a meeting with his… (Pete Souza / White House )
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration appears to be now preparing for an Egypt without President Hosni Mubarak, pushing the hard-line 82-year-old leader to swiftly meet the cry from the streets for greater political freedom while growing ever-more doubtful that their longtime ally can survive the upheaval.
The administration is not yet ready to abandon Mubarak — at least in public. Officials continue to strike a cautious tone in their statements, fearing that openly supporting calls for Mubarak's removal would alarm other U.S. allies in the region.
But both current and former government officials say the days of autocratic government in Egypt are over — with or without Mubarak.
"They don't want to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand that the Mubarak era is over and that the only way Mubarak could be saved now is by a ruthless suppression of the population, which would probably set the stage for a much more radical revolution down the road," said a former senior U.S. advisor who said he has discussed the crisis with ex-colleagues still in the administration. He spoke on condition of anonymity so he could be more candid on a topic of sensitive debate inside the administration.
"They recognized that change was coming," said the former official, adding that the administration recognized as early as Wednesday that it could not try to save the Mubarak regime at all costs.
"They needed to be on the right side of history and not trying to keep Mubarak in power against all odds."
In TV interviews Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to raise the bar for the new Egyptian government to satisfy the demands of protesters for greater freedom. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Clinton said, "I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy."
Clinton's impatient tone was a sign that the administration may be laying the groundwork to distance itself from Mubarak.
An Obama administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that one thing is certain: Mubarak can no longer preside over an authoritarian government.
Even if Mubarak is able to withstand the protests, he can't continue the leadership style he had before the protests erupted, the official said.
But powerful voices inside Egypt insist that the Obama administration is out of touch if it believes Mubarak can be the architect of the democratic reforms it insists must come.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has emerged as the face of the loosely allied forces who constitute the opposition, said in an interview Sunday that Mubarak can't be trusted to usher in new freedoms.
"The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years would be the one to implement democracy," ElBaradei told "Face the Nation."
How to handle an opposition claiming a mantle of democratic legitimacy and a strongman president refusing to heed the calls to resign is a tricky calculation for the administration. Mubarak's Egypt has been helpful on a range of issues important to Washington, such as fighting terrorism, Arab-Israeli peace talks and containing Iran.
Furthermore, Middle East allies are closely watching to see whether President Obama is willing to dump an ally of three decades, wondering about the depth of American commitment should protests erupt on their streets, the former administration official said.
"It's a very difficult balance to be struck. Mubarak is, after all, a friend of the United States for the last 30 years," he said. "A lot of our allies in the region — the Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis — will be particularly nervous if it looks like the U.S. is doing in one of their friends. The administration understand this.
"But the most important thing they understand is that they have to get in front of this and not behind it."
U.S. military leaders continue to convey to their Egyptian counterparts, with whom they have deep professional relations, the U.S. desire that they use as little force as possible and not try to preserve Mubarak's power through a military crackdown.
Obama is keeping up with events through regular staff briefings and close consultation with allies in the region. On Saturday, he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said.
In the course of those conversations, Obama urged "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House said in a prepared statement.
Obama must also deal with his own promises to Egyptians and others in the Middle East. Shortly after taking office in 2009, the president delivered a landmark speech in Cairo, where in an eloquent address he pointedly told his hosts that governments must reflect "the will of the people."
Having delivered such a speech, Obama is hard-pressed now to throw his support behind a repressive ruler at the expense of crowds clamoring for democratic rights.
Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.