Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.
There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.
These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.
As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.
We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.