With another mass demonstration planned in Cairo and other cities today, and opposition to the nearly 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak coalescing around Mohamed ElBaradei, debate in the United States is centering around the question of whether, how and when President Barack Obama should call on the dictator to step down. After nearly a week of steadily escalating public protests, it seems clear that Mr. Mubarak's attempt last week to answer calls for his resignation by reshuffling his cabinet and appointing a new vice president from his inner circle are unlikely to delay his exit much longer. What matters now is who will replace him when he is eventually forced from power and what the change in leadership will mean for the long-term strategic relationship between the United States and Egypt.
Beyond supporting a peaceful transition to democracy, however, there may be little the U.S. can do to directly influence what happens next, despite the fact that events in Egypt are likely to have repercussions throughout the Arab world, including U.S. allies such as Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan. For decades, America lavished billions of dollars a year in economic and military aid on Mr. Mubarak's corrupt, authoritarian regime, while generally ignoring his gross human rights violations in the name of maintaining regional stability. Instead of stability, however, what we got was an increasingly repressive government that employed the trappings of democracy to tamp down a powder keg of popular discontent. Successive U.S. administrations knew what the problems were but, with rare exception, refrained from publicly criticizing Mr. Mubarak because of Egypt's critical position as a staunch U.S. ally in a volatile region.
The mass uprising that has brought tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians into the streets since last Friday has consequently put the United States in the difficult position of reconciling our avowed support for democratic reform with our actual legacy of propping up friendly authoritarian regimes, as long as they're willing to serve our interests. Now many in this country and around the world are waiting to see whether President Obama, who has spoken eloquently of America's desire for better relations with the Arab world, will stand up for our ideals — or, by his silence, continue our legacy of unprincipled realpolitik. Notably, Mr. ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has criticized President Obama's unwillingness so far to urge Mr. Mubarak to step down.
Yet focusing on the U.S. role in Egypt is fundamentally the wrong way to approach events there. The protests in Egypt have everything to do with ordinary Egyptians' desire for a fairer, more responsive government and relatively little to do with what actions we did or didn't take, or what words Mr. Obama has or has not said. Our efforts to stage-manage politics in the Middle East (and elsewhere) have rarely turned out well, and given that history, the administration's approach of supporting the right of the people of Egypt to peacefully assemble and seek redress of their grievances is probably the most reasonable course of action under the circumstances. This is about Egypt, not about us.
There is, of course, always the risk that the flowering of democracy in Egypt will lead to a government that isn't nearly so friendly to our interests (or those of Israel) as the Mubarak regime has been. The victory of Hamas in elections in the Gaza Strip, and the de facto coup d'etat by Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, are painful reminders that we should be careful what we wish for.
Yet it is worth remembering that while all our efforts to keep Mr. Mubarak and other strongmen in power in the Middle East may have avoided a resumption of full-scale warfare in the region (and preserved the free flow of oil), they have certainly not brought peace. On the contrary, they have stunted the political and economic development of nations in the region and, in turn, created conditions in which extremism and terrorism have flowered. It's worth remembering that it was the repressive policies of Mr. Mubarak's Egypt that led to the radicalization of Mohamed Atta, the pilot of one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
As then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a speech in Cairo in 2005, "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, and we achieved neither." We should make clear that we seek a peaceful and productive relationship with the legitimately chosen government of Egypt and that we support the right of its people to free expression and self-determination. The rest is up to the Egyptians.