Egypt is now experiencing its fifth day of violent street protests. The army has been called out, social media communications and internet access have been disrupted, and most recently President Hosni Mubarak has sacked his government and will be appointing a new one.
Egypt’s economy is mired in high unemployment with low wages, and the masses have followed the lead of Tunisia and taken to the streets against an unpopular leader. Mubarak, who has been President for 30 years and apparently has become increasingly tyrannical over that period, is trying to avoid being deposed. In these all-too-familiar scenarios, the crucial issue for the regime usually is whether the army can beat back the masses so that calm can be restored, or whether the army decides to side with the public, leaving the strongman President For Life unprotected, unsupported, and faced with a choice between arrest and trial or fleeing into exile. That decision point seems to be drawing near in Egypt.
In Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv, the wheels no doubt are turning. Under Mubarak, Egypt has been a moderating force that gave Israel one set of stable borders. Egypt was rewarded for that. It has long been one of the largest recipients of American aid. In 2010, Egypt received $1.5 billion in economic and military aid, second only to Israel.
I am sure that the realpolitick types in American government would prefer Mubarak to the unknown that might occur if he were deposed. It is possible, of course, that elections could produce a fundamentalist Islamic regime that is hostile to Israel and the Mideast peace process. Yet too much American support for Mubarak could quash American influence with a successor government if he ultimately is deposed. Iran may be a model here. America’s steadfast support for the Shah of Iran until the bitter end left America with no real influence when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and American and Iran have been estranged ever since — to the detriment of geopolitics in the Middle East.
Of course, geopolitical considerations and American foreign policy considerations don’t mean much to those Egyptians who are in the streets, protesting in hopes of achieving democratic changes and a better life. Why shouldn’t they have a real say in how they are governed?