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Looking For Opportunity In The Egyptian Crisis

Those were the days: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington in August 2009.
Those were the days: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington in August 2009.
Although it's clear the almost hourly developing events in Egypt have changed -- or will change -- the world, it's difficult to understand exactly how because it's utterly unclear how the popular uprising will play out. So far, the greatest change is precisely the uncertainty -- but it ultimately could be the greatest boon for U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration by enabling the United States to move beyond the sad legacy of the Iraq war and renew its global leadership.

Many commentators have already discussed how social media are shaping events, and indeed new Internet technology has done much to help the protest organizers. (Satellite television is arguably even more important.) Others have pointed out the many precedents, including Iran in 1979 and Eastern Europe's wildfire revolutions of 1989, when there was no Facebook or Twitter.

Images of the flimsy barricades and burned-out cars around Tahrir Square remind me of Moscow during the 1991 coup d'etat attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That bid for power failed above all because its leaders were weak: the coup leader’s hands shook visibly during the news conference announcing the action, and state television defiantly zoomed in for the world to see. The effects were unmistakable on Moscow's streets, where protesters appeared largely unafraid.

Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak has displayed no such wavering. He's shown himself wily and ruthless, first giving the appearance he wouldn’t crack down, then trying persuade demonstrators to leave before attempting to undermine the protests by, at the very least, tacitly backing thugs to attack them.

But his actions have been ham-fisted. So far he's failed to game the complex equation between fear and perception authoritarian regimes rely on to stay in power.

Uncertain U.S. Reaction

In 1989 and 1991, the answer to questions about what had changed was easy: the changes in the Soviet Union, whose new leader had enacted a policy of tolerance and openness. But if today's spreading uprisings are generating similar feelings of euphoria and defiance from one country to another, there's no single outside force that's crumbling, or any other easy explanation.

Clearly that's contributed to the uncertain U.S. reaction. There's been little to criticize so far, beyond the usual bumbling answers of presidential press spokesman Robert Gibbs and the understandable appearance of being late to react to fast-developing events. Changing decades of policy backing the man seen as Washington's best Arab ally isn’t easy, not least because the reasons for having done so were never black and white.

But the uprising has helped paint far clearer lines. Israel has shown how not to act in the current situation. Worried that Egypt's uprising will bring about another fundamentalist Islamic regime, the Israelis would rather continue advancing their narrow short-term interests by continuing to cling to Mubarak than advocate a change of regime that could eventually help bring far greater stability to the Middle East.

Although the prospect of a fundamentalist regime is real, it's not the greatest likelihood -- if Mubarak steps down soon and lessens the likelihood of continued bloodshed and chaos that would embolden extremists. The protests have so far been un-ideological and not religious-minded. Although the uprising could be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood or another Islamist movement, it appears the bulk of Egypt's youths don’t support a fundamentalist agenda. And the military, which has huge stakes in Egypt's politics and economy, is still widely respected.

All Over The Map

The stakes for the United States are huge. If it's able to help facilitate an orderly transition, fair elections, the eventual emergence of a democratic government, it would give Washington a unique opportunity to advance its foreign policy on many fronts.

Beyond turning the page on the image of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a new Arab model of government would help move the world beyond the stalemate between Islamic fundamentalist groups and their secular opponents. More than simply a potent denial to fundamentalist Islamic propaganda, Egyptian democracy could in the long term provide a more equitable economy and foundation for change in other Arab countries and elsewhere around the world.

U.S. foreign policy has been all over the map. Washington has backed Mubarak and other autocrats in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere in the interests of American strategic power and stability while rejecting Hamas's victory in democratic Palestinian elections in 2006. The events in Egypt have justifiably done much to add to further accusations of hypocrisy in American foreign policy.

The United States can’t be seen to be dictating events in Egypt, but it has a moral obligation to manage its fear of the unknown and take the opportunity to back democracy. That would do much to reshape its image and legacy, and help the Obama administration put its stamp on history.

Gregory Feifer is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL