Dictator-for-life isn’t a position conducive to good judgment and selflessness. Hosni Mubarak is a case in point. In extending his exit, he’s increasing the instability of an already-dangerous situation in Egypt.
The interest of the United States in Egypt is to avoid the worst case — chaos, or a takeover of the state by the Muslim Brotherhood. That means we should want a very deliberate process of transformation, playing out over an extended period rather than all in a rush in the coming weeks or months. The best way to buy time for careful change shepherded by the Egyptian military is to do as much as possible now to meet the protesters’ reasonable demands, beginning with Mubarak’s resignation.
So far, the protests have been blessedly peaceful, with the exception of the assault on the demonstrators by Mubarak’s thugs last week. But that could change at any moment, including as soon as today, when protesters’ ranks will presumably swell with Friday prayers and the anger stoked by Mubarak’s latest non-resignation speech. Violence could be a disaster. Put aside the human cost; it is almost always radicalizing, and a crackdown could split the army, the most important institution of the state.
If the regime were to succeed in smothering the protesters and perpetuating itself in a post-Mubarak version of the status quo, that would avoid the worst cases — but perhaps only in the short term. Surely, discontent would bubble up again, and in all likelihood the lesson would be that next time a revolt cannot be as moderate or mannerly. In this scenario, it would be not the first but the second revolution we’d have to fear — not 1905, but 1917.
All this means that the best course for the Egyptian government is to move to create goodwill on the streets. There is no reason for Mubarak to stay if his regime is still in control. There is no reason for the state media to continue to pump out propaganda, no reason that free speech cannot be honored, no reason genuine political prisoners cannot be released, no reason the longstanding emergency law cannot be revoked.
These changes would indicate the beginning of a new dispensation in Egypt, and, one hopes, create the conditions for a slow, steady transition to a new regime. The first step would be for the government to negotiate a timeline for change with the opposition, for constitutional reforms and eventually elections. Most important are the constitutional reforms. To the extent we can influence the process, we should erect as many guardrails as we can against the possibilities that a determined minority like the Muslim Brotherhood will take over the government, and that the Brotherhood will play the poisonous Hamas/Hezbollah game of half electoral player, half armed gang.
Elections have to be delayed so that players besides the Brotherhood can organize. We want to give independent political parties, journalists, and activists the space they need to build the foundations of a democratic polity. It very well may be that there’s no way to deny the Brotherhood a role in the political process, but we shouldn’t welcome that fact, and we shouldn’t tell ourselves ridiculous bedtime stories about what the Brotherhood is, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did in his congressional testimony yesterday.
Count us as cautiously pessimistic on Egypt. It needn’t go the way of Iran in 1979. Yet we should remember that Egypt — for all the hope represented by the young, tech-savvy protesters — is a society with basically illiberal values. Simply throwing elections on top of such a society is not a formula for liberal democracy.
Our friend Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard writes, “An American conservatism that looks back to 1776 cannot turn its back on the Egyptian people.” No one should turn his back on the protesters, who have risked their lives for what they imagine will be a better future. But we should be careful about comparisons to the American Revolution. In 1776, America already had a vast amount of experience with elections, self-government, and the rule of law; we were already in important respects a democratic society.
Egypt doesn’t have that luxury, which is why its revolution must be handled with the utmost care.