WASHINGTON As it watches the crackdown against the uprising in Egypt, the United States is trying to avoid abandoning President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of 30 years, while supporting the democratic ideals of the protesters.
Here are some of the U.S. policy options:
BALANCING ACT (MOST LIKELY)
The United States, chiefly through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has stepped up calls for Mubarak's government to make political and economic reforms and to restrain security forces from attacking protesters.
But it has also made clear it is not abandoning Mubarak, at least for now, and that it is looking to work with the Egyptian government to undertake reforms.
The result is a balancing act that analysts suggest aims to position the United States to be able to work with whoever prevails -- the Mubarak government or its successor.
"The tightrope that the administration has to walk is that the regime probably is going to survive," said Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
"The history of revolutions is that they only succeed when the government loses the will or the capability to use violence and so far there is nothing that is happening in Egypt that suggests that either one is going to happen."
BACKING MUBARAK TO THE HILT (UNLIKELY)
Mubarak, a former air force officer who replaced assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, has been a vital U.S. partner because of his support for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, his backing for a wider Arab-Israeli peace and his help on counterterrorism and other issues.
Stability in Egypt for the past three decades has been of immense value to Israel, which has not had to worry about its Egyptian flank since the 1979 peace treaty that flowed from the Camp David Accords brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
If the United States were to offer Mubarak unstinting support, it runs the risk of being on the wrong side of history and of sticking with an authoritarian leader whose forces have been using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against protesters.
While Clinton described the Mubarak government as stable on Tuesday, the Obama administration has gradually shifted its emphasis, making its calls for reform more pointed and, on Friday, telling Cairo to "restrain" its security forces.
"Reform is absolutely critical to the well-being of Egypt," Clinton said at a news conference. Speaking about Middle Eastern leaders generally, she added: "They need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat."
To offer Mubarak uncritical support risks antagonizing not only Egyptians but also Arabs throughout the region, many of whom deeply resent Washington for backing their authoritarian leaders, supporting Israel and invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
ABANDONING OR SANCTIONING MUBARAK (LEAST LIKELY)
If the Obama administration were to turn its back on Mubarak, it could take a number of steps, including:
-- cutting off some or all of the $1.3 billion in military aid and roughly $250 million in economic assistance Washington gives Cairo annually;
-- demanding the United Nations Security Council take up the issue of Egypt's crackdown on the protesters;
-- condemning the crackdown in public;
-- telling Mubarak behind the scenes that he should go.
None of these seems likely yet, although the White House said on Friday: "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days."
Cutting off such a long-standing ally could send a chilling signal to other U.S. allies that Washington cannot be relied upon and perhaps push them toward closer ties with others such as China or Iran.
"That will be read by other allied countries throughout the Middle East as (a sign of) the reliability of an American friendship," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Regardless of what Washington does, the influence of the United States may be quite limited.
"This is not about us," Alterman said.
"This is about Egypt and ... the broad and deep perception that the government has not delivered for its people," he added. "Our role in that is marginal at best."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)