First, it’s not impossible that lawlessness will induce Egypt’s risk-averse generals to crack down. But the White House is lucky that the military, which has benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, does not seem predisposed to fire on its people, many of whom continue to insist that Mubarak step down now. “The Egyptian army will try and avoid at all costs the moment when Mubarak or someone else orders them to turn their guns on their own people, and I think before it comes to that they will push the leader overboard,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ruling but Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. In two previous instances when the Egyptian army took to the streets in a time of crisis—in 1977 and 1986—it did so without major violence.
Second, the chaos of the protest movement leaves room for radical Islamists to hijack the revolution, as they did in Iran. In the same way that Iranians greeted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets last week to welcome the return of Islamist leader Rachid Ennahada, who had spent two decades in exile. The Muslim Brotherhood was also much more visible in the Cairo protests this week than last week.
Here is the trouble in trading the devil you know for the devil you don’t in Egypt. “It will be hard to have a post-Mubarak political arrangement in Egypt without the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are well organized and still retain significant popular support,” said Abdeslam Maghraoui, the author of Liberalism Without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt 1922-1939. “The brotherhood also knows, however, that relatively cosmopolitan Egypt is unlikely to willingly trade autocracy for theocracy, or to embrace sharia law.”
Third, even if Islamists don’t take over, Washington and Jerusalem will have to live with the fact that truly representative Arab democracies will be more anti-Western than compliant autocrats or pampered elites. “I don’t underestimate the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to cause trouble.… They [would] try and cancel the peace treaty with Israel and drag the country in a more anti-Western and confrontational direction,” said Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian and chair of the study of Islamic radicalization at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “For a number of reasons, however, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support has declined in Egypt in recent years. A lot of younger Egyptians have come to reject their radical views, for instance, because they see the problems created when the Islamists have gained dominant power in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iran. The brotherhood also joined the recent protests very late, which many Egyptians saw as hypocritical.”
In any case, there’s no telling how a more representative government would treat any of the long-held assumptions that undergird American policy toward Egypt. For decades, Mubarak acted as a regional bulwark against the fundamentalism exported by Iran and Syria. He also backed the United States in Iraq, giving the war a crucial imprimatur from the Muslim world. “Egypt is still the keystone of the United States’ Middle East policy, and the most strategically important ally we have in the region,” said David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Egypt did not need coaxing to move against Islamic fundamentalists or join in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, having spent decades battling its own extremists. When Hamas captured the Gaza Strip in 2006, Egypt cooperated with Israel by closing its border crossings to isolate the group. “For the United States, it’s not important that Mubarak stays in power, but maintaining a strategic partnership with Egypt is essential,” Mack says.
Many experts believe that the relationship was bound to change anyway. Even before the street protests threw the partnership into question, there were signs that the old order in the Middle East, anchored by the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, was drifting. Washington is still coping with the aftermath of the Iraq war and a fragile democracy there; that preoccupation has emboldened Iran and Syria and their terrorist proxies. Turkey, another key security partner, has increasingly charted its own course under an Islamist government that split with Washington over Iraq. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—the foundation stone for the U.S.-Egypt alliance—has been in shambles since 2000, despite heroic efforts by both Democratic and Republican administrations to advance it.
“The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt may be an important wake-up call suggesting that the old order is no longer viable … and that it’s time for the United States to step back and consider its overarching interests in the region, and what strategy best serves them,” said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In the short term, Brown believes, democratic upheavals will bring headaches for Washington, given how unpopular the United States is among Arabs. In the long term, though, both Israel and the U.S. could benefit from the death of the idea that the only choice for the region is between autocrats and theocrats. “Tunisia and Egypt have shown that organized popular action is no longer futile—so, suddenly, other alternatives are imaginable,” Brown said.