A despot, secure for many years in the brutal exercise of his power through repression, tainted elections and close association with the United States, suddenly finds himself barely clinging to office. A populist momentum has arisen in the streets in one of those human waves of emotion that seems to be self-generating and unpredictable.
Masses of people bring tanks to a halt. The loyalty of the military to the regime is in question. The despot tries a frantic political ploy to calm the volcanic fury; it backfires.
There is an attempt to martial pro-government demonstrators, seeded with police and military. But the despot's supporters whittle down to this: thugs with rocks and guns trying to fend off the tide of history.
Eventually, the ugly portrait is so painfully clear that the president of the United States, until then reluctant to intervene against a long-time ally in the fight against regional forces hostile to the U.S., agrees to pull the plug forcefully. The despot is whisked out of the country and the nominally democratic crowd chooses a hero of the uprising to lead them.
Wait. Mubarak hasn't been airlifted out just yet.
But we know how this could turn out because the scenario above unfolded in the Philippines exactly 25 years ago this month.
There is a direct line between the 1986 People Power insurrection that overthrew and exiled Ferdinand Marcos and what is happening today in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities (and other countries nearby). The promise of an essentially peaceful overthrow of entrenched authoritarian rulers began in the broad avenues of Manila back then; it spread out to Burma, South Korea, Nepal, the Soviet Union, Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.
Results were spotty but, at a minimum, cracks were made in the cement of oppressive, autocratic rule.
I remember well sitting in the palatial homes of Marcos cronies while they complained about the burden of power. In 2006, right after Mubarak had placed his technocrat friends from the business sector in cabinet posts, I rode to a dinner at the extraordinarily lavish compound of a new Egyptian cabinet minister -- part Vegas, part Monte Carlo, all on steroids. The uber-wealthy group discussed over an extravagant dinner how frightful it was to give up their private sector earnings for paltry public sector toil.
In both countries, the small number of people at the top clearly had little instinct or interest for the social and political tectonic plates shifting underneath them.
The connection is all the more fitting because it was President Ronald Reagan who hesitantly yanked the rug out from under Marcos, at the urging of then-Secretary of State George Schultz and other coolly analytical heads, after days of stubbornness and waffling.
On this centenary anniversary of Reagan's birth, New York Times columnist Frank Rich talks about Barack Obama's "determination to appropriate Ronald Reagan's political spirit..." Rich was referring to U.S. domestic politics, of course.
But why is Mr. Obama not paying attention to the piece of the Reagan legacy in the Philippines that we'll call "dealing effectively with a dictator who's lost his grip?"
A few days ago, when the Egyptian volcano started to rumble, the president talked to the Egyptian street about how "we hear your voices..." like he was in California couples counseling. A historical curve was forming but, as potential future Egyptian president and protest hero Mohamed Elbaradei said, the U.S. is "behind the curve." Mubarak was, Elbaradei said, showing off his deep knowledge of American culture, "a dead man walking."
Whatever was happening on private calls and in diplomatic channel whispers -- hello, WikiLeaks! -- U.S. rhetoric was tight-lipped and tepid given events. Leaked stories talked about the Administration's quandary over abandoning a long-time ally to an uncertain future.
Both Mr. Obama and his spokespeople have upped the rhetoric, condemning Mubarak-inspired violence and demanding that "a transition of power must start now." Whatever that means, exactly. Then, said press secretary Robert Gibbs, "'Now' means 'yesterday,'" Gibbs explained. "When we said 'now,' we meant 'yesterday.'"Why not just red carpet the guy out of town and country, the way Ronald Reagan did with Marcos? And not leave behind a military junta, either. As Foreign Policy's Robert Springborg says,
"It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist. The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him."
The U.S. gives Egypt around 1.5 billion in aid a year, a small number for Facebook valuation but persuasively big money to a country with nearly half under the poverty line and 9.4 percent unemployed. Not unlike the Philippines, where 70 percent are still dramatically poor and the U.S. had strategically important -- at the time -- military bases.
The two revolts separated by a quarter century do have their differences. For one thing, there was no global terrorism waiting in the wings when Marcos was booted, wafting away with his family and some of their plundered wealth in U.S. military choppers. The Muslim Brotherhood may not be the force it once was, but it is certainly more powerful still than pallid communist and Muslim insurgencies in the 1980s Philippines.
And Cory Aquino did not usher in social and economic revolution, though her son, who is the current president, might do better.
But the U.S. must be hoping that ElBaradei is our present-day Cory Aquino, a popular, U.S.-educated leader who looks better to Western eyes than any alternative. If so, Mr. Obama should man up to the Gipper's example in this and airlift Mubarak, or at least tell him publicly to leave.
Realities of the world have quickly blown right by the old U.S. dictum, attributed to Franklin Roosevelt or members of his administration about a despot in the last century: "He may be a son-of-a-bitch but he's OUR son-of-a-bitch."
Not if we want to have any role other than Satan in the modern Middle East.