The Egyptian Paradox (A Riddle for the Sphinx)

02/07/2011 04:55 pm 16:55:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Do we, as supposedly liberty-loving Americans, really support people's revolutions?

Or do we impose our own idea of revolution on others?

We faced this quandary many times in the last century: Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Iran come immediately to mind. Sometimes we greeted the upheaval, sometimes we ignored it, sometimes we meddled, and sometimes we fought it (literally).

Our current quandary, of course, is Egypt. For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak has been our ally. We have supported him and, most heavily, his army. Obviously, this has promoted and ensured Egyptian "stability". It has also kept Egypt an ally of America and maintained Egypt's peace pact with Israel.

But "stability" does not imply, or ensure, freedom and democracy: the most totalitarian states are always the most stable! America has, in effect, supported a repressive government and ignored -- deliberately or blithely -- the oppression of the Egyptian people, even when there were clear signs of rebellion.

In the case of Egypt, it is easy to overlook those signs. On the face of it, Egypt is a magnificent repository of history, whose iconic images are known to almost every schoolchild: the pyramids, the sphinx, the Nile, the mummies, the obelisks. Egypt seems timeless, indestructible. And so the discontent and suffering of its people today, in modern times, is easy to overlook.

The problem America faces now is how to keep Egypt a staunch ally while helping it to establish a democratic form of government -- because a democratic form of government may well include un-democratic elements, religious dissenters, and even the Muslim Brotherhood.

What would happen if American aid were sharply reduced, or withdrawn completely from the military? Or should American aid be used as the carrot that encourages Egypt to toe the line (our line)? In a way, we need Egypt more than Egypt needs us, for up until now it has been a firewall against its anti-American Islamic neighbors.

The big risk, then, is that the tide of change now flooding Egypt will bring in a revolutionary regime that breaks its ties with America and Israel. And the big problem is how to prevent this from happening: by force, by bribery?

Somehow, we need to establish an entente cordiale. That sounds very old-fashioned and outdated, but we must guarantee our support of the democratic process as it unfolds in Egypt. We cannot enforce it (haven't we learned that in Iraq?). We can, through every diplomatic channel possible, encourage it.

And keep our fingers crossed.