WASHINGTON // The United States is beginning to prepare for a new era in Egypt. On Sunday, making the rounds of the major morning news shows, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, repeatedly called for a "peaceful, orderly transition" in Egypt to a more representative government that would address the concerns of the protesters who returned to the streets for a seventh day of demonstrations yesterday.
Her wording was the strongest indication yet that the US sees Hosni Mubarak as in his last days as Egypt's ruler. That contrasts starkly with the statements Mrs Clinton made last week. Then, as protests erupted, she described the Egyptian government as stable and "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people".
The US will be wary of being seen to have completely abandoned Mr Mubarak, and Mrs Clinton was careful not to call directly for his resignation.
"I'm not going to get into either/or choices," she told NBC's Meet the Press. "What we're saying is that any efforts by this government to respond to the needs of their people, to take steps that will result in a peaceful, orderly transition to a democratic regime, is what is in the best interests of everyone, including the current government."
A "peaceful transition" implies support for the demands of the Egyptian demonstrators but can also be seen as a call for an arrangement that includes all or part of the present regime.
Mrs Clinton was also careful to note that the US was satisfied that at least one of its long-standing demands of Mr Mubarak, the appointment of a vice president, had now been met.
"Everyone is complaining that the administration is behind the curve, and they were to start with, but they are catching up," said Mark Perry, an independent Washington-based political and military analyst. "I think they are now calculating that Mubarak can't last, so if there is a transition, let it a peaceful one. The administration would want a slow and stable transition with a national unity government, and where Mubarak agrees not to run for re-election."
US officials have pressed home to its other allies in the region a message Mrs Clinton delivered in Doha two weeks ago, the day before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian president, left Tunisia in the face of similar street protests: The political status quo could not remain. Arab governments need to pay heed to the aspirations of their people for greater representation.
It is in part Arab government support for US policies in the region, especially vis-a-vis Israel, that provide a focal point for discontent among populations across the Arab world.
US will officials have noted that the Egyptian demonstrations have not contained any significant anti-US element, Mr Perry said. The Egyptian opposition, he said, should be seen as a "strongly nationalist Egyptian" in character.
"The US is very worried about coming down on the wrong side. We need Egypt. It doesn't matter who is in charge as long as it's stable," he said.