It's tempting, in light of Egypt's military and economic dependence on American aid, to believe that the United States can control the crisis provoked by mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak. President Obama contributed to that impression with his telephone call to Mubarak last week, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went on television Sunday to ratchet up the pressure on the Egyptian leader, calling for an "orderly transition" to democracy.
The administration is absolutely right to lecture Mubarak about the importance of democratic reforms. But advocating democracy is different from stage-managing it — or introducing it at the barrel of a gun, as President George W. Bush did in Iraq. The revolt in Egypt is an indigenous and broad-based movement galvanized by decades of corruption and poverty (as well as by the example of the revolt in Tunisia). The United States, which can't know what's going to happen next, should let events play out, reaffirming this country's devotion to democracy while recognizing that Egyptians must determine their own destiny.
A post-Mubarak political order could certainly complicate matters for U.S. policymakers. There isn't much appetite in Washington for a government that would be led by the Muslim Brotherhood, although that group is more moderate than some Islamist parties. The Pentagon would undoubtedly like to preserve its working relationship with the Egyptian military. And the Obama administration is understandably concerned about what would happen to the relationship between Egypt and Israel if Mubarak were forced out, and to Egypt's role as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.