When popular protests broke out in Tunisia, prompting the president to flee the country, some observers predicted a domino effect that would upend other authoritarian Arab regimes. Demonstrations in Egypt have made prophets of those prognosticators — but only up to a point.
Startling as the images of crowds in Cairo may be, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is better armed and more entrenched than that in Tunisia. Nor, despite superficial similarities, is Egypt analogous to Iran in 1979, when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was toppled by a revolt that eventually turned the country into an Islamic theocracy. Athough there are no certainties, the Mubarak regime seems unlikely to be overthrown in the near future.
These qualifications, however, do not lessen the significance of what is going on in Egypt, or of the lesson it teaches Mubarak: liberalize or face an escalating popular opposition, one that could foment continued disorder, threaten the economy and substantially weaken his regime. Mubarak must allow for greater freedom and an expansion of civil society; most immediately, he must remove the straitjacket on political opponents, secular and religious. The next presidential election should not be a coronation for either him or his son.
As an ally and benefactor, the United States has helped prop up the 82-year-old strongman since he took power 30 years ago, and today it is in a unique position to impress upon him the importance of democracy. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Egypt should "implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." Earlier this month she warned autocratic leaders in the Middle East that "[t]hose who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever."
The question is how insistently this advice is being offered in private. Egypt is the signal example of the tension American policymakers face between support for democracy and the pursuit of strategic interests. Egypt is a strong U.S. ally in a region rife with anti-Americanism. By signing a peace treaty with Israel, the late President Anwar Sadat reduced dramatically the possibility of a major Arab-Israeli war, and Egypt under Mubarak continues to play a broker's role in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
No one expects the United States to advocate regime change. Nor is it likely to condition the more than $1 billion in economic and military aid it sends to Egypt each year on political reform (though that is a course we would support). But it should make the most of the protests to impress upon Mubarak the wisdom of Clinton's warning.