Updated at 7:55 a.m. on January 28.
For decades, the U.S. relationship with Egypt has rested on an unspoken bargain. Washington has provided Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s widely unpopular government with tens of billions of dollars of aid while offering only mild criticism of its corruption and human-rights abuses. In exchange, Egypt has maintained a cold peace with Israel and worked as a key intermediary between the U.S. and other Arab states.
But the growing pro-democracy protests throughout Egypt threaten to upend that bargain and fundamentally restructure Washington’s relationship with Cairo. The Obama administration has been taking a notably tougher line with Mubarak, 82, than it has in the past, but the White House will soon have to decide whether the longstanding American commitment to democracy outweighs the risks of possibly toppling a vital and longstanding U.S. ally.
Egyptian activists declared today a "Day of Anger" as the government continued to try to enforce its ban on the protests sweeping its streets all week. Police, using riot sticks and tear gas, arrested hundreds of protesters calling for the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule. All access to Internet, cell phone and text messaging was taken down in parts of the country today, according to reports. A Bedouin protester was shot dead in the Sinai on Thursday, pushing this week’s death toll to at least seven. Dozens of others have been injured, some seriously.
The protests against Mubarak’s long rule erupted just days after crowds of anti-government protesters in Tunisia forced the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Protesters in Yemen on Thursday called for the removal of another American-backed strongman, President Ali Abdallah Saleh. Yemen is embroiled in a fight against active al-Qaida militants in its country, and the Obama administration has sharply escalated its military and financial assistance to the country. As with Egypt, the United States will soon face a choice about whether to continue supporting Saleh in the face of widespread calls for his resignation.
Egypt has been rocked by widespread political unrest before, most recently when food prices soared in the spring of 2008, sending thousands of protesters into the streets and sparking violent clashes with Egyptian police and soldiers.
But the current protests seem fundamentally different. Arabs across the region have been riveted by satellite television coverage of young Egyptians tearing down posters of Mubarak and publicly calling on him to step down, and there has been a striking diversity of voices inside and outside of Egypt calling for regime change. Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, returned to Egypt and joined the protesters.
“I continue to call on the regime to understand that they better listen and listen quickly, not use violence, and understand that change has to come,” ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna before boarding a plane to Egypt. “There is no other choice.”
ElBaradei was put under house arrest after joining the protests, the Associated Press reported.
As the riots escalated Friday, the Egyptian Army mobilized on Cairo's streets. Protesters cheered, calling for the military to side with them and not the police. Mubarak has also now imposed a country-wide curfew beginning at 6 p.m.
Here in Washington, the Obama administration—which was criticized for failing to speak out more strongly when tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets last year—has been taking a notably harder line against the Mubarak government and steadily escalating its support for the protesters.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, urged Mubarak “not to prevent peace protests or block communications.”
“Egypt has been our ally," Obama said Thursday during an interview on YouTube. "But I’ve always said to [Mubarak] that moving forward on reform is critical to the future of Egypt.... The government has to be careful not to resort to violence, and the people have to be careful to avoid violence.”
The United States gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt each year and has given it more than $28 billion in economic and development assistance since 1975. Washington has a vested interest in backing Mubarak, a secularist, in his fight against extremism and terrorism. The administration also wants to make sure that Egypt maintains its steady, though cold, peace deal with Israel.
Video of protesters in Egypt pushing back police in Cairo.
But Mubarak has been far from a model American ally: His decades-long rule is fraught with corruption and widely seen as ineffective. To the widespread dismay on the part of Egyptians, who saw the vote as rigged, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party won 83 percent of the seats in the last parliamentary election in December. Local rights groups and Egypt’s enormously popular opposition parties criticized the election as a glaring example of fraud and accused Egypt of turning into a one-party state.
The aging Mubarak has yet to clarify if he will run for president next year. He has been trying to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him. The current protests may not be enough to force the elder Mubarak to relinquish power. But given Gamal Mubarak’s relative unpopularity and lack of support within the country’s military and security services, sustained unrest could easily keep the younger Mubarak from inheriting it.