The Mubarak era is almost over. Under the twin pressures of popular revolt and American persuasion, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is unlikely to last the week.

It is clear that Mubarak’s promise not to seek re-election has not satisfied the opposition, any more than a similar move last month by Ben Ali in Tunisia. They are demanding his immediate departure and the formation of a transitional government to prepare for elections — and, barring some dramatic new development, that’s what they will get.

At least as important as the crowd’s reaction is that of the US administration, which is now giving clear signals that it expects Mubarak to step down. Responding to Mubarak’s speech, Barack Obama said the transition “must begin now”. The BBC’s Kim Ghattas, reporting a conversation with “a senior US official”, said that “although they have not gone back to Mr Mubarak to say he must stand down immediately, they are hoping he has figured that out on his own”.

For Obama this is a dream come true, but one that could still turn out to be a nightmare instead. His call for freedom and democracy in the Arab world, made a year and a half ago in Cairo, has been dramatically heeded. And while, as I said yesterday, the administration has seemed if it was scrambling to keep up — a trend that continues with Obama’s remarks this morning — that’s nothing compared to the confusion among its opponents.

It’s a given that the right would attack Obama, regardless of the circumstances. But while some (such as Elliott Abrams have welcomed the democratic movement and criticised the president for his reluctance to support it, others see it as part of Obama’s grand plan for Muslim world domination.

According to Conor Friedersdorf, Rush Limbaugh has even attempted, incoherently enough, to combine the two.

This confusion in turn reflects basic differences over what the original crusade for Middle Eastern democracy, as promoted in the middle years of George W Bush’s administration, was really about.

On the one hand were those, probably including the president himself, who genuinely believed that Arab democracy was good and achievable and in the long-term interests of the United States and Israel. (For what it’s worth, I think they were right about this, although the way they went about making the case was often counter-productive — most obviously in Iraq.)

At the other end was what we might call the “imperialist” school, represented notably by Dick Cheney, who were actually hostile to democracy and used it simply as a rhetorical screen to promote (what they saw as) American interests.

But between these strands was the group including most of those properly called “neo-conservatives” (think Daniel Pipes, Martin Peretz, Wolfowitz of Arabia). Although, unlike the imperialists, they thought democracy was a good thing, their primary interest was support for the Israeli right and a consequent hatred of the Arabs. They were able to shut down Bush’s support for democracy after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006.

The neo-cons believed Arabs were unfit for and incapable of democracy.

When they argued that Israel should not negotiate with Arab governments because they were dictatorships, this was not intended as a reason to support democracy, but rather as a justification for never negotiating.

Democracy was not a carrot to offer the Arabs, it was a stick with which to beat them.

So when Arab populations show, against all neo-con expectations, that they want democracy and will go to considerable lengths to get it, it just doesn’t fit the right’s narrative. And that at least gives Obama some breathing space to try to work things out for himself.