Washington has been sending hopelessly mixed messages about Egypt since the popular revolt against the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak began. At first the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared the Mubarak regime "stable". A few days later she demanded an "orderly transition" of power. This was followed at the weekend by remarks from Frank Wisner, Barack Obama's envoy to Cairo last week, stating that "President Mubarak's continued leadership is crucial".
These muddled messages were widely believed to reflect a conflict between the twin US goals of promoting stability in the region and promoting democracy. But, as we report today, there is a more sinister explanation. Mr Wisner, a former US ambassador to Egypt, turns out to be employed by an American lobbying and law firm, Patton Boggs, which works for the Mubarak regime and several "leading Egyptian commercial families". This is a straightforward conflict of interest.
The generous interpretation would be that the White House called Mr Wisner out of retirement without subjecting him to adequate scrutiny. The less generous interpretation is that the US is, once again, working covertly to serve its own interests in the Middle East. Trust is vital. Ms Clinton and the US Vice President, Joe Biden, are urging the Egyptian opposition to deal with the newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, despite the fact that Mr Suleiman was previously the head of the country's brutal intelligence services and is widely distrusted by Egyptian democracy campaigners. If the opposition think they are being pressured by the US to submit to a second Mubarak, the results will be disastrous.
In the light of this revelation about Mr Wisner's lobbying job, the White House has a clear test. It needs to repudiate Mr Wisner's views and apologise for having sent such a compromised representative to Cairo. If it fails to do this, the Egyptian people are liable to draw the conclusion that the Obama administration, despite its fine words about liberty and democracy, is not on their side.