The stunning news today of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak stepping down has all but eclipsed the other political news of the week. Who would have thought, a month ago, that a government that had oppressed its own people for over three decades would fall simply because a bunch of people marched in the streets and refused to give up?
American politicians are still trying to figure out how they should react. Although shocking to some, this is entirely normal. The people of Egypt have spoken, and before it happened, nobody could have foreseen how fast or how effective it was going to be. The demonstrations surprised the Egyptian government as well as the American government. The main lesson to be learned here is that sometimes, in our new cyberspace world, events move faster than analysis can hope to. That's one of the strengths of such "people power" movements -- their inherent unpredictability.
Of course, democracy is unpredictable as well. If Mubarak's exit truly does usher in an era of true democracy in Egypt, then the fact of the matter is that nobody knows what it will mean for the future. Nobody can predict who will win a free and fair election, what the Egyptian government will look like after one, or what it will mean for the region, the United States, Israel, or the rest of the world. But that is the nature of democracy.
George W. Bush spoke to this when he was president. In explaining his vision for the Middle East of democracy spreading outward from Iraq, he directly addressed critics who thought that "some people weren't ready for democracy." Bush soundly rejected this idea, in his belief that everyone, everywhere deserves freedom and democracy.
It was interesting to watch the political commentary from the Right during the Egyptian uprising. Initially, Republicans painted the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere as a vindication of Bush's idealistic view of the future of democracy in the region. Then Fox News started warning of the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and many conservatives had to execute a very quick rhetorical U-turn to side with Mubarak and "stability" (exactly the same Faustian bargain the United States has had with Egypt for decades). Tom Tomorrow captured this turnabout brilliantly this week in cartoon form.
President Obama has had a complicated few weeks as well, to be fair. Obama (and his spokespeople) have been issuing very closely parsed statements over the past few weeks, which at times seemed to fully back the protesters and at times seemed to defer to Mubarak's wishes. This, too, is fairly normal. Obama is the President of the United States, not some minor congressman or (even worse) some media pundit. His words carry a lot more weight and a lot more consequence than some random politico or television talking head. So he's been choosing his words very carefully over the course of the uprising.
But for all the quibbles over what Obama should and should not have said in the past three weeks, the real diplomacy was happening behind the scenes -- where Egypt's military is the biggest actor on the stage. What saved this uprising from becoming a bloodbath was the close ties America has to Egypt's military. This is of enormous importance, and it is why Egypt's mostly-peaceful outcome is not likely to be replicated in other Muslim countries (or at least not in the same fashion). Anyone disbelieving this has only to look as far as what happened in Iran recently for proof.
The Egyptian military is funded and trained by the United States to a degree unfathomable in most other Muslim countries. This is the direct result of the Israeli peace agreement. We agreed to build up Egypt's military to a professional fighting force in exchange for Egypt vowing never to use that force against their neighbor Israel. So far, this has worked.
Specifically, it has held the Egyptian military in check throughout the entire protest era in Egypt. The military, essence, declared its neutrality early on in the crisis, which was a true victory for Obama's diplomatic efforts. The few days of violence during the course of the demonstrations were actually a result of the military being too neutral, and refusing to separate the two sides. They quickly corrected this mistake, and the demonstrations resumed their original peaceful nature.
It's telling, too, that the military forced Mubarak to step down right at what could have been a very dicey point for them -- because after Mubarak's speech last night, the protesters decided it would be a good idea to branch out from the central square to besiege the key government buildings. The military would have had the tough job of guarding the buildings and the government, and possibly turning the crowd back by force -- which they really didn't want to take part in. Faced with this choice, they obviously gave Mubarak an ultimatum, which he (finally) accepted.
Egypt is a very special case, though. There aren't a whole lot of other countries in the region where America has such close ties to both the government and the military. If a popular uprising springs up in any of the other countries in the region, the outcome may not look anything like what just occurred in Egypt, so it's hard to say that the Egyptian revolutionary model is any kind of template for anyone else to follow.
As for the fears that Islamists will now sweep into power in Egypt, well, that's the thing about democracy -- the people get to choose. The Egyptian people will make that choice all on their own, which is exactly how it should be. They may indeed choose a government which decides not to have such close ties to the U.S. as before. That, though, is their right. Self-determination means that America doesn't get a vote at all in how they want to run their country. Realistically, though, an Islamist takeover of Egypt seems like a pretty remote possibility at the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood may win some parliamentary seats, but likely nowhere near a majority. And if the United States can live with an Iraq where Muqtada Al-Sadr holds a minority bloc of parliamentary votes, then we can likely live with an Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has a similar political influence. And in Egypt, no American soldiers had to die to reach the same point.
Of course, it is still "early days" in the new future Egypt is forging for itself. It remains to be seen where this path will lead, and what will change as a result both for Egypt and for the U.S. The Egyptian military is now in control, which is probably the best outcome at the moment because of our close ties to them. As long as they move the process along of amending Egypt's constitution, ending the "emergency laws" which have resulted in a police state, and setting up free and fair elections, they are probably the most stable group in Egypt to referee the whole process. There may be some bumps in the road along the way, but as long as the military doesn't decide it likes running the country so much that elections aren't going to happen, then things will likely turn out fairly well from this arrangement.
Mubarak had to go, and now he has gone. The ironic thing about watching Mubarak was how behind the curve he was throughout the crisis. He kept making concessions which likely would have been acceptable to the crowds -- if he had only made them about a week or so earlier. Each new round of concessions Mubarak announced were similarly behind the curve, reacting to events which were days old. By last night, nothing short of the symbolism of Mubarak stepping down was going to satisfy the crowds. Quite obviously, the military explained this to him in no uncertain terms today.
While Egypt's future is uncertain, the feeling of optimism among the people who succeeded in demanding change is palpable today. It wouldn't surprise me if February 11th becomes an Egyptian national holiday in the future. No matter what happens to Egypt in the future, today is indeed a day of celebration for them to enjoy.
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