Social scientists may succeed at explaining events retrospectively, but when they venture into the realm of forecasting, they are on shaky ground. It is very hard to get into the minds of individual actors and predict what they will do. Last Friday (January 28) I predicted that Hosni Mubarak would be gone from power within a week to ten days. By late last week it was obvious that the peaceful mobilization of the Egyptian people for democratic change had crossed a point of no return; it would not cease until Mubarak was gone and a credible path of transition was laid out. As corrupt and repressive as his thirty years of rule have been, I did not expect that Mubarak would choose to abandon every last shred of patriotism and simply brutalize his own people to hang on to power -- as nastily as he needs to.
No one can seriously doubt that the thuggery and brutal violence unleashed today on peaceful protesters in the streets of Cairo is being orchestrated by the Mubarak regime, on orders (explicit or implicit) of the president himself. Many of the goons who are beating up democratic protesters with abandon have been recognized as police officers in plain clothing. Others are the kind of lumpen proletariat that autocracies scoop up in a last-ditch effort to survive: convicted violent criminals, poorly educated young unemployed men, and no small number of sadists, sycophants, and psychopaths.
As Fouad Ajami, one of the keenest observers of the Arab world, observed tonight on CNN as the violent assaults were proceeding, this is now a bare-knuckles struggle between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy, with fateful consequences for the entire Arab world. If Egypt's peaceful mobilization for democracy fails, "then we return to the only other language we know in the Arab world, the language of blood."
The bloodbath that is now unfolding in Egypt is not only a tragedy for that country. It risks becoming a national security disaster for the United States, particularly if the Egyptian people (who are not immune to conspiracy theories) come to believe that the U.S. has tacitly encouraged the crackdown, despite its lofty appeals for prompt and peaceful political change. If the assault on innocent Egyptian civilians continues, it may buy Mubarak and his venal loyalists some time, but at the risk of radicalizing much of the population and propelling the country toward deepening chaos and even an Algerian-style civil war. Sustained bloody repression will inevitably radicalize many young Egyptians. Popular mobilization that was admirable in its pluralism, moderation and discipline will find it much harder to resist the impulse toward violence and extremism in response.
There is very little time left to prevent a disaster in Egypt. The stakes for the United States -- and its reputation throughout the Arab world -- are now so profound that the Obama administration can no longer wrap its appeals for restraint and democratic change in diplomatic politesse. President Obama must now decisively and publicly separate the United States from the Mubarak regime and identify squarely with the people protesting peacefully for democratic change. Egypt's army leadership -- ironically, the last hope for rescuing the course of peaceful political change -- should be quietly told that a complete suspension of U.S. military aid is imminent if the violence is not brought to a halt. If Mubarak survives in power and continues the bloody assault on his people, the Obama administration should suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt and impose targeted sanctions on anyone in the regime associated with the repression.
This is how we have treated pariah regimes like Zimbabwe, Burma, and Sudan. And that is what Mubarak's rule is becoming in its final, ugly days.