An Egyptian demonstrator holds a sign up following prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the seventh day of mass protests calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Marco Longari)
In addition to not being eager to give up on a regime in which the U.S. has invested heavily to maintain its power in the Arab world, it's very likely that the Obama administration is worried about the domestic political impact of "losing" the U.S.-favored strongman in Egypt.
Democrats know about being tagged with "losing" countries that many U.S. people are persuaded we have a right to dominate. Truman "lost" China. Kennedy and Johnson both feared they'd be blamed for "losing" Vietnam. Carter "lost" Iran. In every instance, "lost" meant that the people of these countries had other ideas about what kind of government they wanted than the U.S. government did -- but in U.S. domestic politics, they were "lost" and that was a bad thing.
Presumably, if they've decided that Mubarak is going down -- and I'll bet they have -- the Obama administration wants to be able to claim it facilitated some kind of semi-peaceable transition without losing either its influence over Egypt or taking so visible a role as to poison any new regime. Previous U.S. administrations have sometimes been able to do that in countries where dictators we liked had worn out their welcome with their own people. Think the Philippines in 1986 or Indonesia in 1998.
One development that would get Obama tagged with "losing" Egypt would be a government dominated by the longstanding civic/political Islamic organization the Muslim Brotherhood. Here a cable from the Wikileaks data dump lets us in on the U.S. government's own assessment of whether that would be so terrible:
These diplomats didn't seem to be too worried about the Muslim Brotherhood when they were commenting in communications presumed private. However, given that a significant fraction of people in this country believe that President Obama wants to turn the U.S. over to Islamic rule, he's got to worry about appearances at home.
Egyptians will do what they do; more power to them! The administration will have lots of incentive to help some subsequent regime keep the peace and, urgently, get Egypt out of the mass media spotlight.
It's going to be quite a test of the agility of the administration's footwork whether they can get through these testing circumstances they cannot control without much domestic political damage. Pass the popcorn!