Yesterday he was staying, today he is leaving. Who knows what goes on in the mind of a pharaoh? Clearly, Hosni Mubarak was trying to hang on, and just as clearly, the Egyptian military told him no can do. No doubt they realize that their ability to hang onto their privileged position was being imperiled by Mubarak’s desire to cling to his even more privileged position, so they gave him a gentle shove out the door.
There are many points one can make at such an important moment. Obviously, one can cheer on the people of Egypt and wish them the best in creating a democracy — a goal that is only slightly closer to realization with Mubarak out of office. All too many obstacles remain, including the desire of Omar Suleiman and his military backers to maintain the corrupt structures that have dominated Egypt for decades. But for the time being, let me offer a thought as someone who is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
Egypt shows that there is a better way than setting off bombs if you want to change regimes. “People power” protests of the kind we have seen in recent weeks in Cairo and Alexandria have toppled far more rulers in recent decades than all the world’s terrorists and guerrillas combined. East Germany, the Soviet Union, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Georgia, Tunisia, and on and on — the list of countries where popular demonstrations have toppled unpopular regimes is a long one. Now add Egypt to that list.
The success of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt is especially striking because both regimes — along with all the other governments in the Middle East — have been in the cross-hairs of al-Qaeda and their Islamist fellow travelers. Osama bin Laden and his ilk have been using suicide bombers and assassins for many years to try to topple dictatorships across the region. Time after time, they have failed — in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. All those regimes have proved able to repress violent extremists (admittedly, in the case of Iraq, with considerable American help). In Egypt, Mubarak survived the massacres of tourists in the 1990s carried out by Islamist groups. He did not survive peaceful rallies in the heart of his own capital.
There is a lesson here for those not too fanatical or deluded to learn it. Put down the bomb, the sniper rifle, whatever weapon you have, and grab a placard, go on Twitter, organize a rally. True, many peaceful protests have been repressed too, as we have seen most recently in Iran; but they offer a much surer road to regime change than does blowing up innocent people.