The spirit of revolution is shaking the whole Arab order. Egypt is the country to watch; it presents the Tunisian symptoms of distress writ large. Hosni Mubarak has been the president for over thirty years, longer even that Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who managed only 27 years as dictator. Presidential elections are due in Egypt in the summer. Eighty-two now and known to be in poor health, Mubarak may decide to fix proceedings as before and stay ruling by emergency decree. In which case, natural death or revolution are the only ways for Egyptians to be rid of him. Tunisians made the same calculus with the 74-year-old Ben Ali.
Egyptians are easy-going as a rule; they take life as it comes. Every so often, the injustices inflicted by their rulers are just too great to bear, and they demonstrate furiously in the streets. Mubarak came to office only because Islamists had shot and killed Anwar Sadat, his predecessor. Not a coward, he is a thug. He’s eliminated through death sentences and imprisonment a large number of Islamist opponents, and it is a safe bet that he’ll do the same now if demonstrators really threaten his position. So far, tear gas and water cannons are keeping crowd control, but if the situation deteriorates, the Egyptian army and police, in contrast to the Tunisians, are likely to obey orders to open fire on unarmed people. The outcome of such a test of strength is uncertain but probably an army officer would emerge, Nasser-like, to take power. There isn’t a viable democratic alternative, and the Islamists are probably good only for starting a civil war.
Mrs. Clinton tells us that the Obama administration’s assessment is that “the Egyptian government is stable.” There has been no pronouncement quite so fanciful as that since Jimmy Carter praised the Shah of Iran as a pillar of stability in the Middle East six short weeks before the Shah was run out of Iran. Along with the Arab order, American policy in the Middle East is also shaking.