Hosni Mubarak needs to quit now, an increasingly frustrated Washington demanded as President Barack Obama struggled to contain a worsening Egyptian crisis that threatens to spread across the Arab world.
"Now means yesterday," spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday after Mr. Obama had watched horrific scenes of pro-democracy demonstrators being beaten only hours after he had extolled the Egyptian army for its restraint. Mr. Gibbs said the President found the images "outrageous and deplorable."
As the leader of the sole remaining superpower and Egypt's key ally, Mr. Obama is caught between the responsibility of managing a dangerous crisis and the reality that the ugly confrontations in Cairo are spiralling out of control.
Mr. Gibbs was blunt in saying Mr. Obama regarded as inadequate Mr. Mubarak's offer not to seek re-election when his existing, self-set presidential term runs out in September.
"Not September. Now means now," Mr. Gibbs said. "The conversation that the President had with President Mubarak was direct, it was frank, it was candid. And … the message that the President delivered clearly to President Mubarak was that the time for change had come."
Mr. Mubarak, ruler of America's oldest, closest and most powerful ally in the Arab world, has so far ignored Mr. Obama's demand.
Mr. Obama has twice now addressed the nation and the Arab world in televised speeches as the Egyptian crisis has deepened. Each time, events have rapidly overtaken his calls for non-violence and an "orderly transition."
Yesterday, the White House pointedly dropped the word "orderly."
"It is imperative that the violence that we're seeing stop and that the transition that was spoken about last night begin immediately," Mr. Gibbs said.
The urgent White House demand that Egyptian military and police forces stop attacks on demonstrators was being delivered at multiple levels. Defence Sectary Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the ambassador to Cairo and military liaison officers were all giving their Egyptian counterparts the same message. The Americans are warning of consequences - believed to be cuts in the $1.3-billion in military aid that provides Egypt's officer corps with a privileged lifestyle in a society plagued by poverty.
"Officers throughout our command ranks have spoken to their counterparts … it's safe to say, again, each and every one of those conversations starts out with a conversation about restraint and non-violence," Mr. Gibbs said.
For Mr. Obama, the danger that uprisings could spread, imperilling long-standing alliances with key Arab allies including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and undermining joint anti- jihadist campaigns in already unstable regimes such as Yemen and Sudan, poses the worst foreign policy crisis of his presidency to date.
The pace of events seemingly caught the Obama administration flat-footed. "Events have, again, moved enormously quickly in a very volatile region of the world … the likes of which, again, we have not seen in our lifetimes," Mr. Gibbs acknowledged.
The President's decision to wade into the crisis, first urging non-violence and - in recent days - struggling to shape events even as it became clear that the Egyptian uprising might be descending into chaos has exposed him to charges both that he is doing too little and too much.
Yesterday, the White House seemed to alternately threaten and cajole Mr. Mubarak, the 82-year-old ailing dictator who has ruled for 30 years.
Mr. Obama "believes that President Mubarak has a chance to show the world exactly who he is by beginning this transition that is so desperately needed in his country and for his people now," said Mr. Gibbs, suggesting that a democratic impulse on his way out of the presidential palace could secure the former fighter pilot a place of honour in Egyptian history.