Discuss as:

U.S. thinking changes on 'fluid' situation in Egypt

By Robert Windrem, NBC News investigative producer for special projects

What a difference a few days make when it comes to assessing a volatile protest against a foreign government.

Three days ago, the consensus among U.S. officials was, in the words of one, that Egypt “isn't likely to be the flashpoint that Tunisia turned out to be."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the main reason for that view was Egypt’s repressive security apparatus.

But by Friday, the official said, the widely held view was that "this could go either way." Adjectives being bandied about among higher-ups included "fluid" and "extraordinarily tense." 

The outcome may be determined within a matter of hours, the official said, adding, "Somebody has to do something to break the tension and fast."

U.S. officials do not expect a conciliatory message from President Hosni Mubarak, the official said, noting that no one would believe such a statement and that it could even exacerbate tensions given the harsh repression.

It's possible Mubarak will offer to meet with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt to join the protesters in calling for Mubarak to step down, the official said, but that too is problematic. It would set ElBaradei up as someone who people can rally around.  As for ElBaradei’s house arrest, that may be a good thing because "not everyone on the streets is of one mind."

Finally, and perhaps most important, the official said "Mubarak is poised and is positioned to crack down harder if that is what he wants to do,” the official said. “He has not pulled out all the stops on repression."