A second day of deadly clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square has been more than enough to show President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old regime in its true colours. Refusing to step down until the next election in September 2011 and keeping silent on the demand that he rule his son Gamal out as a candidate for the succession, Mr. Mubarak has presided over fighting in which thousands of unarmed and peaceful protesters have had to defend themselves against brutal attacks by his purported supporters. Eyewitnesses identified among the attackers members of the government's semi-official thug militias and the notoriously vicious police, now in plain clothes. The role of the army, which was initially praised on all sides for its statement that it would not fire on protesters, is suspect after it let the hoodlums through the lines formed by soldiers around the edges of Tahrir Square. The violent turn has caused at least five deaths in addition to the 300 that the United Nations estimates have already occurred across the country; and more than 1,500 people are believed to have been injured since the mass protests started nine days ago.

It is clear that Mr. Mubarak will not change the way his government has always responded to dissent, namely, by unleashing repression. His earlier vague talk of political and economic reform, and his more specific moves — such as the hastily appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman's promise to implement appeal-court decisions on contested election results, and the replacement of the notorious Interior Minister by a retired general — were no more than a smokescreen. The regime's initial moves served to buy time from its strongest backers, the United States and other western countries, and to delay their recognition that the Egyptian state has lost all legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, Washington's first reaction was to support its longstanding ally in the region by stressing order and stability. But a new situation has arisen, with the Obama administration changing tack to condemn the violence against the protesters by Mr. Mubarak's henchmen and to demand that he speed up his exit — and the dictatorial regime hitting out at what it has characterised as foreign interference aimed at “inciting the internal situation in Egypt.” Reports that the U.S. is now trying to establish links with the Muslim Brotherhood suggest that successive administrations have given little thought to what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. Now that the street has risen in do-or-die revolt against a hated regime that has unashamedly served the U.S. and Israeli interests in the region for three decades, Washington finds itself facing great uncertainty and forebodings of what might happen in the wider region beyond Egypt.

More In: Editorial | Opinion