Reading the News from Egypt

The news from Egypt is traveling fast – despite the goverment’s best efforts to clamp down on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. President Hosni Mubarak’s call for everyone else in the cabinet to resign ignores the signs and chants in the streets calling for him to go.  Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the putative leader of the reform movement, is now under house arrest. The level of support that he enjoys among the public at large is unclear. The reports that I have seen and trust suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is not playing a very large role in the protests, despite the fact that they are the leading opposition group in the country.

Mubarak has stoked fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt for decades, extracting billions of dollars in foreign aid from U.S. taxpayers, and convincing leaders in Washington not to push too hard for political reform. The Obama administration can’t undo years of bad policy, but it isn’t clear that they would do so, even if they could.

The simple fact is that no one, including the very few genuine experts on Egypt and the wider region, knows what is going to happen next. So we watch. And wait. And hope for the best.

The best case from my perspective is for the violence to abate. That would allow the inchoate reform impulses within the protest movement to coalesce around a clear alternative to Mubarak. And if Mubarak somehow manages to stay on a while longer, I hope that he will use that respite to move Egypt towards a genuine democracy, not merely invoke fears of further chaos in the country as an excuse to perpetuate his autocratic rule.

Washington’s long-standing support for Mubarak nearly ensures that some of the people marching in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and Suez will eventually direct their ire on the United States, but the protests now seem focused on purely domestic matters: not enough jobs, too much corruption, and a general lack of political and economic opportunities. If the United States is seen as attempting to pick a successor for Mubarak, it will likely undermine that person’s credibility, and merely deepen suspicions that the Egyptian people aren’t really in control of their country. As with all successful political reform movements, the ideas might come from elsewhere, but the impulse for change must come from within.