Chaos in Cairo’s streets has wrecked Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The collapse of any dictatorship should please Americans. One of the world’s most durable dictators is being tossed into history’s dustbin. However, the process in Egypt has only started. The most difficult question always is how any so-called revolution ends. Tragically, revolts against repressive regimes often lead to even greater tyranny: consider the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions. The American experience to the contrary is almost unique in history.
Moreover, Mubarak long has been a key Washington ally. U.S. policymakers used to “doing business” with his regime fear that any government arising from the street will be more hostile to America, as well as Israel, which seems to matter almost as much to many U.S. policy-makers. For instance, potential GOP presidential candidate Michael Huckabee lamented that the Obama administration had done too little to support Egypt’s dictator. Yet Uncle Sam today is little more than an interested bystander in Egypt. The Obama administration has stumbled along, first standing by Mubarak, then issuing platitudes about reform, and finally pressing for a peaceful “transition.” But Washington’s opinion simply doesn’t matter much. Observed Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “neither the protestors nor the government are relying on signals from the United States.”
The Egyptian crowds seeking to oust Mubarak have no interest in what the U.S. desires. Indeed, many were angered by the administration’s original refusal, highlighted by Vice President Joe Biden’s reluctance to call Mubarak a dictator, to stand by the Egyptian people. Washington’s popular reputation, already low, fell even further. Alterman warned: “I don’t think there’s anything the U.S. can say or do that would change” the perception of U.S. backing for the Mubarak government.
Regime elites, including top commanders in the army, may care more about Washington’s opinion, but survival is their first priority. Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and one-time presumed heir, is not the only member of the ruling establishment reported to flee overseas. Indeed, for members of the regime to stay in Cairo is to risk life as well as any ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no good options. Washington has been attempting to influence events in Egypt for decades. Once an ally of the Soviet Union, Cairo shifted to America’s side and made peace with Israel. Mubarak promoted U.S. foreign policy objectives in return for American acquiescence in his oppressive policies at home as well as bribes thinly disguised as aid, about $60 billion worth over the past three decades.