WASHINGTON — The U.S. faces its most precarious moment in the Middle East in years, with the dangers to U.S. interests growing as a tense standoff drags on between tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime, according to analysts and former officials.
President Barack Obama and his aides are hoping for what they call an "orderly transition," with a smooth exit for Mubarak and a handover of power to a transitional government that organizes new, fair elections.
The massive protests planned for Tuesday could in theory lead to this scenario for the most populous Arab country. The grimmer scenario is a lengthy crisis that debilitates Egypt further and ends in a military coup, anarchy or general chaos.
"I think there's a lot to be scared about . . . more to be scared about than to be thrilled about," said retired U.S. diplomat David Mack, now with the Middle East Institute. If things go badly wrong, "you could have Somalia on the Mediterranean."
"The longer the situation wends on, the more dangerous it becomes for American foreign policy," said J. Scott Carpenter, who was a State Department official dealing with Muslim democracy issues under former President George W. Bush.
The State Department Monday sent former ambassador Frank Wisner to Cairo to urge Mubarak's government to embrace political overhauls.
"At this point, we clearly recognize what happens in Egypt will have broad ramifications" in the Middle East, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told McClatchy. But what those ramifications will be aren't clear, he said, because "we don't know the end of the story."
Speaking privately, because of diplomatic sensitivities, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that Washington's efforts to revive the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process could be hurt. "Some of the participants are probably going to be distracted for a bit," he said.
The surprise Egyptian crisis comes atop a host of other developments that have challenged U.S. standing in the region. Iran has expanded its influence, and its proxy, Hezbollah, has chosen Lebanon's next prime minister. Iraq teeters between stability and renewed violence.
But Egypt and its military have long been a major lever of U.S. influence in the Muslim Middle East. The country has been a key counterterrorism ally, quietly supported a tough position on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, and even assisted with U.S. military deployments to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite opposing the war itself.
While a fundamentalist takeover in Cairo seems unlikely, "there's a possibility that whatever new government emerges in Egypt will distance itself somewhat from the United States" and from Israel, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dunne was one of several academics who met with White House officials Monday morning to discuss Egypt policy.
Obama finds himself in the painful position of trying to align the United States with Egyptians' demands for democratic overhauls, while trying to encourage Mubarak to leave — without actually saying so.
"The history of the 20th Century is littered with cases where we got out in front" of popular protests, said a senior U.S. diplomat, explaining the White House's caution. "The Hungarian uprising is probably the most notorious result," said the diplomat, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly. The U.S. encouraged a 1956 anti-communist revolt in Hungary, but was powerless to stop the Soviet army from crushing it.
The "ideal scenario," Dunne said, is one in which the U.S. assists the transition to democracy for both Tunisia — whose autocratic leader was ousted two weeks ago, sparking the latest unrest — and for Egypt.
Washington could also use the opportunity to pressure other allies in the region — such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan — to embrace the political overhauls they've resisted, she said.
Dunne said she and her colleagues counseled White House advisors that "they don't want to be out in front of events . . . (but) they also should be very careful not to be saying anything that suggests the United States is propping up Mubarak."
A turning point in the crisis could come early Tuesday, with opposition leaders promising to bring one million people into the streets of Egypt's cities.
While the upheaval in Egypt itself was a surprise, even after the ouster of longtime Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, few experts expect other leaders across the Middle East to fall like dominoes.
And if the confrontation in Cairo devolves into chaos, strongman leaders in countries such as Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Syria are even less likely to embrace a political opening, said Mack, the former U.S. diplomat who served in Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and elsewhere.
"I don't think it's a 'Berlin Wall' moment for the rest of the region, regardless of what happens," said Carpenter, referring to the toppling of Eastern European governments following the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall.
The region's monarchies, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, may be in a stronger position than republics like Libya and Syria, whose legitimacy "rests on a more narrow basis," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY