Last night the Americans were preparing to evacuate their diplomats in Cairo after the State Department decided the situation was spiralling out of control. It was the latest twist in a chaotic policy from Washington towards the upheavals in Egypt.
Towards the end of last week Hillary Clinton described Egypt as having a "stable government" which was "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people". Forty-eight hours later however, the US Secretary of State was stressing the need for "an orderly transition to a democratic government".
As far as Washington is concerned, Hosni Mubarak is history. When the Egyptian President failed to announce his resignation in his last televised speech, there was, according to diplomatic sources, a collective groan among those watching in the White House. Like his fellow North African strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mubarak is now deemed by the West to be a burden. The Tunisian leader could not even get refuge in France, a previous sponsor of his police state, and has ended up in Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian President may well find the desert Kingdom is his last resting place as well.
There is a long history of America and her allies ditching authoritarian regimes which it had once strongly supported, as the likes of the Shah of Iran, and military regimes in Latin America have found to their cost.
This may be in keeping with Lord Palmerston's dictum on international realpolitik: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." But as far as Egypt, and other allies in the neighbourhood who may go the same way, are concerned, there appears to be confusion in Washington as to where exactly its interest lies and how to achieve it. The Obama administration has set out the promotion of democracy in the Middle East as an aim of its foreign policy. It was one of the new president's five key themes in the Cairo speech of 2009. And it is in keeping with this that Mrs Clinton can call for "free and fair" elections to assuage the desire for change for those in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
However "free and fair" elections in Egypt brings the inevitable possibility of Islamists, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, getting parliamentary legitimacy. Even if they do not gain outright power, the hardliners will have enough leverage to bring about changes which would not be to the liking of the US, western Europe and Israel. Thus we have Mrs Clinton's hurried caveat: "We don't want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy, but to oppression."
For America and her Western allies the stakes can hardly be higher. Saudi Arabia may have the wealth to be a useful client state and some influence in the region, but it is Egypt which remains the predominant Arab ally of the US, with regular assurances of friendship and receiving vast amounts in aid. If Egypt was to pass into the hands of a hostile, or even a less Western-friendly government, Washington will have to fundamentally redraw its strategy in the region with the knowledge that there is simply no adequate replacement.
There are people in the State Department and the Pentagon, old Middle East hands, only too aware of this and who are unhappy about what they see as unseemly haste with which the US administration turned its back on Mubarak and, indeed, failed to foresee the domino effect which may arise from what started off in Tunisia.
These officials, seen as not in tune with the prevailing mood music in the White House, also point out that elections in the Arab world, as a rule, tend to see doctrinaire Muslim groups get into power.
They point out the "mistake" the Bush administration made when, five years ago, a reluctant Palestinian Authority was forced to allow Hamas to contest the elections in Gaza, with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisting that "democratic elections would be a key step in the process of building a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state". Within months the US and the West were considering imposing sanctions on a Hamas government which had won those democratic elections.
Israel has done its utmost militarily and economically to destroy Hamas in Gaza. But a hostile Egypt would be a concern of an entirely different magnitude to the Jewish state. Washington will come under tremendous pressure from Israel and her supporters not to allow the situation to unravel.
As a senior Israeli official said in Jerusalem: "For the United States, Egypt is the keystone of its Middle East policy. For Israel, it's the whole arch. Even Mohamed ElBaradei, seen by the West as the ideal moderate alternative under the circumstances, has declared, the Israelis point out, "The Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence".
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said: "The only people in Egypt who are committed to peace are the people in Mubarak's inner circle, and if the next president is not one of them we are going to be in trouble."
But there is now a momentum in Egypt, as there was in Tunisia, and maybe in the near future in other Arab states, which an outside power, even one as mighty as the United States, would find impossible to control. Tony Blair's political judgement over Iraq has again been publicly brought into question with the Chilcot Inquiry, but few can argue with his view yesterday on Egypt: "Change will happen, it is inevitable. You cannot put this genie back in the bottle now."Reuse content