The Obama administration Wednesday sharpened its response to political upheaval and brutal crackdowns in Egypt, telling its closest ally in the Arab world it must respond to its people's yearnings for democracy as the largest political protests in years swept Cairo streets.
But with no clear picture emerging of a democratic and pro-Western alternative to the three-decade rule of Egypt's authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, it was unclear how hard the United States was willing to press its case.
A day after delivering a measured response to Egypt's demonstrations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Egypt had to adopt democratic and other reforms and allow peaceful protests. She told Cairo to lay off social media sites like Facebook and Twitter even as activists are using them to organize street gatherings and destabilize the government.
The White House declined a direct opportunity to affirm support for Mubarak, who traveled to Washington to meet President Obama just four months ago. Asked if the administration still backed Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would say only: "Egypt is a strong ally."
The tougher tone came as the United States struggles to confront an explosion of instability in the Middle East as Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen rebel against decades of political repression.
Clinton said Mubarak's government had the power to ease tensions with anti-government activists, who defied an official ban on protests Wednesday by pelting police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes.
One protester and a policeman were killed Wednesday, bringing the two-day death toll to six. Some 860 people have been rounded up, and Facebook, Twitter and cell phones -- key to organizing protests -- have been disrupted.
"I do think it's possible for there to be reforms and that is what we are urging and calling for," Clinton told reporters at a State Department news conference with visiting Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
"It is something that I think everyone knows must be on the agenda of the government as they not just respond to the protests but as they look beyond as to what needs to be done," she said.
The protests against Mubarak's three-decade grip on power were inspired by the ouster of another longtime leader, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in a popular uprising nearly two weeks ago.
The day before Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia, Clinton delivered a stark warning to Arab leaders across the Middle East that they faced possible revolt if they failed to address rampant social problems, repression and corruption that have alienated their populations.
U.S. officials won't paint the problem as one of democracy versus loyalty, but Washington's labored approach to the protests in different countries illustrates a complicated blend of political idealism and realpolitik. It also points up the unpredictability of the tinderbox of Arab populism.
Unlike Tunisia, a second-tier U.S. ally, Egypt has been the bulwark of American influence in the Middle East and served as an economically impoverished but politically powerful intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beyond.
Waiting in the wings is the Muslim Brotherhood, a cross-border Arab movement that has presented itself as the main opposition to Mubarak's rule in Egypt. That prospect is frightening to the United States and other Western nations because of its opposition to Israeli- Palestinian peace and much of the U.S. agenda in the region.