To appear in tomorrow's WaPo is a piece in which several experts of various political stripes weigh in on how the US ought to deal with Egypt's current turmoil - whom to support, how quickly and definitively to react. Some (including Danielle Pletka) insist on siding with the demonstrators, on the side of democracy and human rights (and Pletka - IMO, surprisingly - says not to fear an Islamist takeover; I hope John Bolton's listening); others (including Hussein Agha and Robert Malley) counsel, go slowly, consider the consequences, be mindful of who your friends have beenDecades of U.S. policy in the Middle East are coming back to haunt Washington. The United States backed Arab regimes that supported U.S. objectives irrespective of whether they legitimately represented popular aspirations. It propped up "moderate" rulers whose moderation consisted almost exclusively of cooperating with American policies. The more they aligned themselves with Washington, the more generous America's support and the greater the erosion of their domestic credibility. As a result, the United States now faces a battle it cannot win.
To continue supporting unpopular rulers would further alienate those who are most likely to assume power in the future. Openly siding with the street would strain ties with regimes that might survive the unrest and whose help the United States still needs; signal to America's remaining friends that its support is fickle; precipitate the rise of forces hostile to U.S. interests; and do little to persuade demonstrators who will see in America's midnight conversion hypocrisy and opportunism.
Washington can cut its losses and begin turning the page in its relations with the Arab world. That will have to wait. For now, it means assuming a low profile and resisting the temptation to become part of the story. That hardly is an exciting agenda, but the United States could do far worse than do very little.
As we watch today, among the most crucial unanswered questions:
How will the respected and powerful Egyptian military respond? Will the commanding officers line up with Pres. Mubarak (himself a former commanding officer, as were Nasser and Sadat before him)? Or might the largely conscript members of the rank-and-file refuse to fire on their fellow citizens?
Will a single leader emerge among the rebels as a spokesman and focus? As of now, there are a number of possibles, but no obvious front-runner.
Finally, in thinking about what sparked the uprising, the man who immolated himself in Tunisia a few weeks ago may emerge as the most sacred iconic figure of this episode, but it's also important to remember that Egypt only weeks ago had a parliamentary election that was perhaps unsurpassedly rigged by Mubarak's NDP operatives to ensure no opposition (one pol described it as "rigging with a hint of elections"), but that a number of those would-be (or former) members who were defeated established a kind of "parallel parliament" as both a protest and an expression of the popular will to establish a truly democratic system. All of which says that the protesters are hardly engaging in all this protest without some idea of where they might be taking it if Mubarak falls.