Having confounded those who fully expected him to resign today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is also saddling those who have opposed the rise of a democracy movement in that country with a terrible dilemma. If the army, which has in recent days made clear it will not allow the country to descend into chaos, now moves to end the protests in Cairo with violence, the odds are it will succeed, though the cost might be frightful. It is unclear whether popular resistance could persist in the face of an armed force that was determined to keep Mubarak and his ruling elite — among which the leaders of the army count themselves — in power.
The consequences of such a confrontation would be awful for Egypt. But they will be no less troubling for other countries that have a great deal invested in the stability of the most populous Arab nation. President Obama has slowly come around to realizing that backing an unpopular dictator and opposing the idea of democracy can be a bad investment. But if the Egyptian military — which is the recipient of much of the $2 billion the United States sends that nation each year — is the instrument by which Mubarak is able to repress his critics, continuing that aid may become politically impossible.
At the same time, a bloodbath or even a largely bloodless crackdown by the Egyptian government would create a situation where radical elements — specifically the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood — might become the focus of the anti-Mubarak resistance, since it will be able sustain itself more easily than the computer- and social-media-savvy youths who have been at the core of the peaceful protests in Cairo.
This would put the United States in a particularly tight spot, as many in the Obama administration seem to find it difficult to think clearly about Islamist movements, as the comments earlier today by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, demonstrated. By failing to adequately support genuine democrats in Egyptian society, the West may have helped bring about a nightmare scenario in which the choice ultimately becomes one between an unsustainable dictatorship and fundamentalist Muslims who present a deadly strategic threat to regional stability. But no one, including those who have a fuzzy understanding of the stakes involved in this conflict (and, yes, I’m talking about those who have been fantasizing about a worldwide caliphate rather than concentrating on the very real dangers of Egypt being torn apart by a civil war pitting a Western-backed military against a popular Islamist movement), should be under the impression that we can, as many in the United States and Israel would like, go back to the status quo that existed before the Cairo demonstrations.
Mubarak’s attempt to hold on has created a crucial moment in which America and its allies in the Arab world must do what it can to prevent Egypt from becoming the new focus of Islamist terror. The possibility of such a terrible choice makes it all the more important for President Obama to use whatever leverage the United States still has in Egypt to influence Mubarak and the army to step back from the precipice.