The Obama administration has done a creditable job of gently edging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak toward some sort of gilded exile. Now it’s time to push. Hard.

Cherished ideals of democracy and cold exigencies of realpolitik both demand that U.S. officials do whatever is in their power — which, frankly, may not be much — to hasten Mubarak’s departure. Help him fuel the presidential jet and load the gold bullion, if necessary. Send him a postcard from the French Riviera saying “Wish you were here.”

The administration’s gradually toughening rhetoric has been appropriate, for the most part. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initial assessment that the autocratic Egyptian government was “stable” and Vice President Biden’s refusal to call Mubarak a “dictator” were obviously wrong, yet it’s easy to understand why they would have trouble believing that popular protests might actually bring down such a durable and ruthless regime.

On Friday, President Obama still sounded as if he expected Mubarak to survive in power, calling on the Pharaonic strongman to “take concrete steps” toward democratic reform. By Sunday, Clinton was calling for a “peaceful, orderly transition” in Egypt; Obama, after speaking to several world leaders by phone, also used the word “transition” in a statement.

That’s exactly right — as long as the administration isn’t using “orderly” to mean “gradual” or “drawn out.” The longer the advent of democracy in Egypt is delayed, the more likely it becomes that the White House will be confronted with a worst-case scenario.

The administration’s nightmare is that the Arab world’s most populous nation — in many ways, the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East — would be ruled by an Islamist regime headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a government would be much more hostile toward Israel, and friendly toward groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. A key pillar of stability in the world’s most dangerous region would have been toppled, with uncertain, perhaps truly awful, implications.

Such an outcome, I believe, is far from inevitable. But it becomes more likely if the broad-based popular yearning for the Mubarak regime’s immediate demise is unrequited.

A face-saving solution, in which Mubarak holds on until elections are held in September, is clearly not what the Egyptian people want. The sweet, optimistic fervor that we’ve seen in those amazing pictures from Tahrir Square would have months to sour and curdle — and the Islamist movement would likely be the ultimate beneficiary.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized opposition political force in the country, but it has been relegated to the margins of the popular uprising. So far, this is a secular revolution. A post-Mubarak Egypt whose foundation is laid now would include the Brotherhood but not in a central role. If Mubarak were to hang on until September — and the multitudes in the streets went glumly back to their everyday lives — the purposeful and tenacious Brotherhood would end up playing a much bigger role in charting the nation’s future.

Already, demonstrators have noted that the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired by Mubarak’s hated police are stamped “Made in the USA.” It is true that Mubarak has been a useful and fairly reliable ally for three decades. But it is also true that cold-eyed analysis would conclude that the 82-year-old Mubarak’s day is done, that the clamor for democracy in Egypt has reached a point of no return, and that it is better for U.S. interests to be on the right side of history.

The United States will in any case retain some influence in Egypt, if only because of the $1.3 billion in aid we give annually. It would be good if we retained some moral influence as well — but we won’t if the administration is seen to back a corrupt dictator whose mandate is utterly expired.

There’s another reason to give Mubarak a mighty shove: We believe in freedom and democracy. We really do.

It is thrilling to watch as Egyptians assert the rights that we hold to be inherent and universal — to assemble, associate and speak freely, to give their consent to be governed, to withdraw that consent when it is abused.

We can’t take the position that democracy is good only when we approve of the leaders who are elected. We’d never convince the Egyptians that this was anything but rank hypocrisy. We’d never even convince ourselves.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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