Revolution in Egypt? Exhilaration and Fear

Chaos in Cairo’s streets likely signals the end of the putative Mubarak dynasty. Although Hosni Mubarak formally remains president, authoritarian regimes seldom survive after their security forces lose control. The military has been deployed, but so far its commanders have not fired on protestors—probably because the former cannot count on the loyalty of the troops.

The possible end of any dictatorship should excite Americans. However, most important is how any so-called revolution ends. Tragically, revolts against repressive regimes often lead to even greater repression: consider the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions.

Today Uncle Sam is little more than an interested bystander to events in Egypt. The Obama administration has issued the usual platitudes about reform, but is unwilling to press Mubarak to resign.

Not that Washington’s opinion matters much. The Egyptian crowds seeking to oust Mubarak have no interest in what the U.S. thinks. Egyptian elites may care more, but survival is their first priority. Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and one-time presumed heir, likely is not the only member of the ruling establishment to have fled to London, apparently in Gamal’s case, or elsewhere overseas.

The U.S. has no good options. Washington has been attempting to influence events in Egypt for decades. Once a loyal ally of the Soviet Union, Cairo shifted to America’s side and made peace with Israel. Mubarak promoted U.S. foreign policy objectives in return for American acquiescence in his oppressive policies at home. Washington provided roughly $30 billion in aid over the years to demonstrate its gratitude.

Long identified with Mubarak, Washington desperately needs to separate itself from his regime and demonstrate that it cares more for the hopes of Egypt’s people than the power of Egypt’s elite. However, attempting to promote particular individuals or factions is likely to be counterproductive. The U.S. government has no credibility even if anyone in Cairo was inclined to listen to those who previously embraced Mubarak so tightly.

Thus, the Obama administration has little choice today but to watch from the sidelines, while preparing to deal with whatever replaces the Mubarak regime. In fact, Egypt matters far less today than during the Cold War. Having an allied government in Cairo is helpful, not vital. If a radical regime closed the Suez Canal it would risk dooming itself by cutting foreign revenue needed to pacify an angry population. If such a government was foolish enough to attack Israel Cairo likely would become another occupied territory.

The U.S. government, irrespective of administration, should back away from attempting to micro-manage politics in Egypt or other foreign nations. Americans should support democracy and a liberal society in the best sense of the word. But U.S. officials should not be in the business of attempting to oust even authoritarian governments.

Washington simply doesn’t know how to get there or exactly where “there” is. That certainly is the case in Egypt, where possible outcomes include direct military rule, domination by Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a reformulated authoritarian regime, or real democracy.

Even in pushing for the liberal ideal American officials are more likely to do harm than good. Washington likely will be blamed for whatever results. Even when the U.S. government is successful in buying friends, it inevitably makes enemies, many of whom have long memories. Of course, it is far worse when Washington backs authoritarians like Mubarak.  Just ask the Iranian mullahs.

The Egyptian people deserve liberation. Unfortunately, history suggests that it will take more than street demonstrations to create a free society. Rather than attempt to dictate outcomes in foreign nations, Washington should recognize the limitations on its ability to influence events, and even more important, to influence events positively. Americans outside of government can do more to promote the principles of liberty and the national culture in which those principles are most likely to flourish.