WASHINGTON President Barack Obama on Sunday urged an "orderly transition" to democracy in Egypt, stopping short of calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down but signaling that his days may be numbered.
Seeking to ratchet up pressure on Mubarak, Obama consulted with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and Britain on the need for an Egyptian government responsive to its people.
The Obama administration's blunt words marked the furthest Washington has distanced itself from Mubarak, a key U.S. ally of 30 years who has been severely weakened by six days of mass protest aimed at ending his long autocratic rule.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also kept up Washington's delicate balancing act, trying to avoid abandoning Mubarak altogether while supporting protesters who seek broader political rights and demand his ouster.
Making the rounds the Sunday U.S. news shows, Clinton said Mubarak must ensure coming elections are free and fair and live up to Mubarak's promises of reform, and that the process should be carried out to prevent a power vacuum that could be filled by extremists.
While Clinton repeatedly dodged questions about whether Mubarak should resign due to the political upheaval, she appeared to suggest the U.S. administration's patience with him was wearing thin and added to pressure on him to loosen -- if not eventually relinquish -- his grip on power.
"We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government," Clinton told "Fox News Sunday" on the sixth day of mass protests against Mubarak's rule.
Echoing Clinton's language, the White House said Obama spoke over the weekend to Saudi King Abdullah, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister David Cameron'
"The president reiterated his focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House said.
RISK OF POWER VACUUM
Clinton also alluded to concerns about who might follow Mubarak. U.S. officials have privately voiced fears that radical Muslims could take power. "We also don't want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy, but to oppression," she said.
Even as Washington has taken a more assertive stance, Clinton signaled the administration was not ready to use its most tangible leverage with Cairo -- the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, the vast majority of which is for the military.
"There is no discussion as of this time about cutting off aid," she told ABC's "This Week," though she quickly added "we always are looking (at) and reviewing our aid."
The U.S. administration was caught off guard by the political upheaval that has rocked the Middle East in recent days, from Egypt to Tunisia to Lebanon to Yemen, and is now scrambling to craft a sound strategy.
Egypt's crisis poses a dilemma for the United States. Mubarak, 82, has been a close partner of Washington for decades and has cited the danger of Islamic militancy as, at least in part, a justification for his long grasp on power.
Egypt plays an important role in Middle East peacemaking -- it was the first of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel -- and is also seen by Washington as a crucial counterweight to Iran's regional clout. But human rights groups have accused successive U.S. administrations of being too tolerant of Egyptian rights abuses.
From the U.S. perspective, the worst-case scenario in Egypt's crisis would be the rise of an Islamist government potentially aligned with Iran. But so far there has been no sign of Muslim fundamentalism driving the protest movement.
While Clinton insisted there were "no easy answers" to the Egypt crisis, Senator John McCain, a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, urged Obama to "get a little bit more out ahead" of the unfolding developments.
"Lay out a scenario of what we think the Egyptian people should have every right to expect," McCain said, such as Mubarak turning over his government to a caretaker leader and not running again for president. "We've got to be on the right side of history here," McCain told CNN.
Egypt opposition figure Mohammed Elbaradei told CNN: "It's better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak 'It's time for you to go'."
ELECTIONS AS CRITICAL JUNCTURE
Clinton cited Egypt's presidential elections, set for September, as a critical juncture. Her insistence that the vote be "free and fair" could be seen as a message to Mubarak that Washington will not accept him seeking re-election, or trying to anoint his son Gamal as his successor.
Clinton's praise for the Egyptian army's restraint -- in contrast to a harsh police crackdown last week -- showed the administration was hedging its bets on the military, considered the key to Mubarak's fate.
Her response to Mubarak's government shake-up was only lukewarm. She said on ABC that Mubarak's appointment of intelligence chief and confidant Omar Suleiman as vice president marked the "bare beginning" of political reform.
Clinton acknowledged that Mubarak had been an important partner over the years in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and the fight against terrorism. But she declined to repeat her earlier comments that his government was stable and refused to be drawn out on whether he should remain in power.
"This is going to be up to the Egyptian people," she told CNN. "We're not advocating any specific outcome. We are advocating that the government, the representatives of the civil society, the political opposition and activists begin a dialogue to chart a course."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Eric Beech, Steve Holland and Will Dunham, Editing by Jackie Frank and Todd Eastham)