Business Week reports that the President will take a stronger line with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on government repression after a third day of protests.

The White House is prepared to step up its criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key Middle East ally, if his government intensifies its crackdown on protesters, said an administration official.

President Barack Obama privately pressed Mubarak in a telephone call last week to embrace democratic changes, said the official, who requested anonymity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday said Mubarak, in power since 1981, has an “important opportunity” to enact economic, political and social reforms.

“We call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” she told reporters in Washington. “We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests nor block communications, including on social media sites.”

The message that White House officials want Mubarak to hear is that he should seize the protests as an opportunity to reform state institutions and not use them as a pretext to strengthen his grip on power, the administration officials said yesterday.

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough spoke on the record about this today, saying similarly that the protests provided a “great opportunity” for political reform. There’s more of this in today’s WaPo.

I have to agree with the WaPo editorial page that Egypt’s regime is unstable, and it’s a direct result of three decades of stifling dissent and repressing their people. Obviously, the United States has considered them an ally through that entire period. I actually do not believe that Egypt’s government will fall tomorrow or even soon, despite the presence of Mohammed ElBaradei urging Mubarak to retire. Unlike Tunisia, the military is well-paid and firmly under the control of the regime. Like Iran, these protests could fade out in the near-term. But over time, you can see how these feelings and emotions in the citizenry will never be extinguished. Even someone who is careful not to compare Tunisia and Egypt like Marc Lynch acknowledges this.

And yet… it doesn’t feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.

Tunisia has manifestly inspired people across the region and galvanized their willingness to take risks to push for change, even without any clear leadership from political parties, Islamist movements, or even civil society. The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities. And the core weaknesses of these Arab states — fierce but feeble, as Nazih Ayubi might have said — have been exposed. They have massively failed to meet the needs of their people, with awesome problems of unemployment, inflation, youth frustration and inequality combined with the near-complete absence of viable formal political institutions.

There comes a point where realpolitik cannot be the sole guide of foreign policy. The Administration wants to proceed on a dual track, by encouraging reforms with the government while it bears witness to the activists on the front lines. But ultimately, their goal appears to be stability, and invariably that keeps us with the authoritarians in change, both in Egypt and Yemen, which is a far more difficult challenge.

I would argue that sustaining authoritarian rule in the Muslim world does more damage to national security, by giving no outlet internally for grinding poverty and alienation. Ultimately these become recruits for terror, and extremists point to the support for authoritarians from the West to back up their claims that the West must be extinguished. We would do better to proclaim universal rights and denounce state-sponsored violence, than being measured and careful and worried about Islamist rule. If we’re going to be involved at all in the Middle East, we need to be on the right side of history.