Pres. Hosni Mubarak has the stink of political death about him. He’s an aging dictator trying to hold on to power long enough to pass the presidency on to his son, even as the tectonic plates of the region shift beneath him.
If he’s scared right now, with protesters inspired by the Tunisian revolution out in the streets, he should be — he has much to answer for. He has rendered his country a hollowed-out wreck. He has immiserated its people, stifled its growth, and flouted its democracy. He has done more than his share to make sclerotic one-man rule the dominant form of Arab government.
We don’t know where the protests of the last few days will lead. They may fizzle, or Egyptian security forces — not known for their squeamishness — may succeed in stomping them out. We also shouldn’t fool ourselves about our ability to influence events on the ground. To the extent we can, though, we should support Mubarak so long as he agrees to open Egypt’s political system; it is best that change come gradually through the democratic process rather than all at once in the streets.
By all appearances, the protesters in Egypt are secular democracy activists who, for their troubles, are getting beaten with bamboo sticks and having rocks thrown at them by the police. The Muslim Brotherhood has, so far, been sitting out the demonstrations as an entity. But if the protesters were to succeed in toppling Mubarak — sending him packing to Saudi Arabia, as some of their signs suggest — it could open the way for an even less appealing regime. In a revolutionary situation, often he who is best organized, and most willful and bloody-minded, prevails.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously said we had traded freedom for stability in the Middle East and gotten neither. True enough. The only thing worse than that unsavory bargain is chaos, or governments actively hostile to us, or both.
One reason that we have to regard the prospect of an Egyptian upheaval with trepidation is that Mubarak has systematically neutered his organized democratic opposition, leaving the Islamists as the most obvious alternative to him — the better to spook us whenever we push him to liberalize. With our efforts in Iraq faltering, the Bush administration all but abandoned its democracy initiative in the Middle East. The Obama administration never took it up, believing it could use Mubarak to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has collapsed.
The administration’s initial reaction to the outbreak of protests was shamefully tepid. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got sterner, calling the protests “an important opportunity” for the government “to implement political, economic, and social reforms.” It should be made clear to Mubarak — 82 years old and up for election in the fall — that he’s now a transitional figure, and that the days of our easy tolerance for his dictatorial rule are over. We expect him to lift the emergency decree he’s imposed since 1981, liberalize the election laws, and restore the judicial oversight of elections. If he’s not amenable, well, there’s no reason we need to keep shoveling vast amounts of aid his way.
Mubarak is supposed to be “our SOB,” but in distorting Egypt’s political landscape to make the choice him or the Islamists, he’s just been an SOB. We should want him to exit the scene — but not quite yet.