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Egypt: The Days of Rage and the Days After

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HEZBOLLAH ISRAEL
AP

Passover arrived early in Egypt. The modern day Egyptians didn't wait for a Prince of Egypt to liberate them from President Hosni Mubarak. Who needs Moses when there's social media? Without plagues or the parting of the Red Sea, Mubarak finally just let his people go.

Actually, weeks after Tahrir Square became the mother of all protest rallies, Mubarak accepted his own exodus out of Egypt. Now his people are left to form a new government of a hopefully democratic character.

Yet there is still great uncertainty over Egypt's political future. And the stakes for the rest of the world have been raised. The Days of Rage made for riveting TV. But the Klieg lights on Tahrir Square must give way to the laser beam of history's judgment. The next weeks and months will normalize into something either worthy of the revolution or reinforcing of the cynicism that true democracy in the Middle East will never be more than a mirage.

So far the nameless, mass protesters, still exulting in the euphoria of freedom, have yet to anoint a leader. The Egyptian military, mindful of its stabilizing role in allowing the rebellion to have played itself out, is keeping the peace but not advancing the freedom. All the palace intrigue of whether Mubarak will survive has now been replaced by even more serious questions about who will emerge as Egypt's next leader, and what kind of government he (unlikely to be a she) will ultimately lead.

Mubarak insisted all along that without him the world might as well give a hearty welcome to the Muslim Brotherhood. Soon we'll find out if this autocrat, so abysmally tone deaf to the cries of his people, might have actually known something about them, after all.

Amid all this new revolutionary spirit in the Middle East -- in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain -- Israel, and to some extent the United States, must watch cautiously, afraid to say what's really on its mind. Democratizing the Arab street can only invite further demonization of the Jewish state. The outcome of Egypt's unrest may turn out to be the ultimate Passover plague.

The present circumstance is not without paradox. After all, Israelis are descended from those who were once delivered from bondage in Egypt; and the United States is the birthplace of liberty with a democratic face. How could either country have not wished to see the Egyptians prevail and Mubarak fall?

Despite their pedigrees, Israel and the United States know that their interests are sometimes better served dealing with despots. Israel's ancestors may have their fingerprints all over the pyramids of Egypt, but the State of Israel has been forced to invert the pyramid and strike deals with modern day Pharaohs. The treaties between Egypt and Israel -- and between Jordan and Israel -- were entered into and sustained by Arab dictators. Those agreements have been honored for decades and have resulted in a durable peace.

The United States, for its part, speaks openly about spreading democracy around the globe. But more often it is influenced by the quiet diplomacy and moral compromises of Realpolitik. Propping up dictators, as despicable as that may be, has promoted regional stability. Decades before Iran underwent an Islamic revolution and became a nuclear provocateur, the United States enjoyed friendly, mutually beneficial relations with Iran's secular Shah. In yesterday's Middle East, Mubarak held up his end of the bargain: The region remained calm even though his people lived in a state of turmoil and dread.

Without Mubarak the Israelis are saying goodbye to the one psychological reprieve that allowed them to sleep at night. And the United States, already awash in wars to liberate Muslim countries and eliminate terrorism, may have another regional giant -- incubating with anti-Americanism -- to worry about.

Shouldn't the aspirations of the Egyptian people for a democratic society be paramount? The United States and Israel, after all, are longstanding democracies that benefit from their shared values. Isn't it ultimately better if Egypt joins the club?

Fractious, fickle, and messy as it is, democracy doesn't come naturally to everyone. Whether it is in the human DNA or whether it appears magically in the aftermath of tyranny, a nation's nascent freedom can end up falling far short of a democratic future.

The Arab street, which has been awakened by these liberation outcries, is not a friend to Israel or the United States. It leans toward Islam and finds anti-Zionist, anti-American rhetoric to be easy listening. Aside from Israel, the great democratic experiment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf thus far has resulted in Hamas taking control over Gaza, eliminating dissent, and instantly shutting down democracy. The jury is still very much out on Iraq.

Will Egypt emerge as the next Turkey or yet another Iran? Whatever happens, Israel and the United States are unlikely to benefit from Egypt's liberation. The Pharaohs of the modern Middle East, ironically, may have been Israel's best hope for a true and lasting peace. And the seduction of America's foreign aid, while it did much to stabilize Mubarak, will have little effect on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The human heart, naturally, cheered on the youthful Egyptians in Tahrir Square. The mind, however, must now worry what will be revealed when the shifting sands of Egypt's unrest settles on a new day.