Give credit to the Egyptian army for obviously refusing to back up Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to hold on to power yesterday. The question now is whether what follows will be something that Egyptian protesters will accept.
There’s little doubt that the army’s main goal is to retain its own hold on power while instituting just enough reform to get the protesters off the streets and also keeping American aid flowing. A return to stability is welcome. But no one should be under the impression that a return to the status quo ante is possible. Authoritarianism must be replaced by something that empowers a greater number of Egyptians. That’s why it is important that the United States and the West should continue to speak out in favor of measures that will create space for genuine democrats rather than a rushed process that might conceivably empower radical Islamists, such as those in the Muslim Brotherhood. The good news is that the Brotherhood appears to have been largely on the sidelines during the protests, and it will be difficult if not impossible for them to claim credit for Mubarak’s ouster.
During his first year in office, President Obama was fond of speaking of the use of “smart power” rather than brute force to achieve American foreign-policy goals. In dealing with Iran and Russia and other problems, smarts have been exactly the quality that the administration has lacked. Now is the time to see if he can muster up some. The trick here will be for him to maintain advocacy of a freedom agenda in which a process that fosters actual freedom will be the focus of American policy. It is true that the temptation to see America’s role as central in all this is something of a distraction. No amount of American money or influence can make Egypt into a democracy overnight. But we can make it clear that stability that merely keeps the military and the ruling elites in power, albeit with a new man at the top, isn’t going to help anyone in the long run.
Those in both the United States and Israel who have been counseling support for Mubarak because of a genuine fear that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood need to understand that the choice here is not that simple. It is true that the people in the streets of Cairo aren’t necessarily sympathetic to the United States. Nor, after generations of state-sponsored hatred directed at Jews (in spite of, or perhaps because of, the “cold peace” with Israel), can we be confident that they would not support a more hostile policy toward the Jewish state. But we must, as Natan Sharansky says again in today’s Jerusalem Post, show them that the West supports their quest for liberty. That’s because our long-term goal here is not merely stability or keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. It is the creation of an Egyptian state that is not dependent on stirring up anti-Semitism or fear of the West. Such an Egypt, like the fledgling democracy in Iraq, won’t be a Jeffersonian democracy, but it may also not be another Lebanon or Iran. If in the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, President Obama returns to his natural indifference to human rights and democracy advocacy, it will be an enormous missed opportunity.