Over the last couple of days as demonstrators, albeit in diminished numbers, took on the security forces of Egypt, the US has been issuing contradictory statements which are redolent of those made in 1979 in the weeks before the plug was pulled on the Shah of Iran. Secretary of State Clinton, for example, has tacked between imploring the government of Hosni Mubarak to refrain from suppression and to seize the opportunity to meet the grievances of the demonstrators and averring that the Mubarak regime was "stable"--presumably even without granting ground on the demonstrators demands.
The "stability" of Mubarak's rule is identical to that of the late Shah's. That is to say, it has the appearance of short term order being (mis)represented by Washington as the reality of long-term stability. To err on the side of accuracy, it is not so much that the Deep Thinking Global Strategists of the current and prior administrations have simply represented the Egyptian government as stable over the long haul as they have inappropriately invested the regime with capacities it never has possessed.
During the Cold War this confusion of the autocrat's ability to impose and maintain public and political order on a day-to-day basis with the substance of long term stability based upon a perception of existential and functional legitimacy widely shared within the country's population drove most of the glaring errors of US foreign policy. It was this confusion of the short and long term which joined the US shoulder and hip with the most distasteful dictators in the world. When night fell as it must on each of these despicable creatures, a roster which includes the Shah, the legacy was one of profound anti-American sentiment which took firm hold not only on the new rulers but the population at large.
The long practice of supporting odious and repressive regimes simply because they assured Washington that the enemies of America were their enemies as well went on a (short) hiatus following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rise of violent political Islam brought the Cold War golem out of the tomb and back into the policies of the US government.
Hosni Mubarak made the transition of Dictator Meriting American Support due to his anti-Soviet, anti-Communist stance to the new role of Dictator Meriting American Support because he was resolutely opposed to violent political Islam, at least the sort espoused by the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, ole Hosni had reinforced his position by carving a key if sometimes ambiguous role for himself in the Mideast Peace Process. (You gotta admire professional competence even in the service of a rotten cause--the perpetuation of Rule By Hosni.)
It is necessary to recall that Mubarak came to power courtesy of a subscriber to violent political Islam having gunned down his predecessor Anwar Sadat thirty years ago. Mubarak moved quickly and effectively to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and other exponents of violent political Islam. The jails, torture chambers, and graveyards were filled to capacity by Egyptians who either did or might have supported violent political Islam. Since then Mubarak and his effective internal security organs have launched waves of repression separated by carefully calculated intervals of tolerance.
Many of the periodic tolerance festivals remind the observer of Mao's Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom campaign which encouraged dissent in order that all dissenters might expose themselves and subsequently be liquidated. At the same time Mubarak did take measures which allowed followers of political Islam to engage in the allegedly semi-secular political life of Egypt. This served to tie the Muslim Brotherhood to the government at least to a limited extent and gave the government some relief from public criticism as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood's highly effective social welfare programs. (And, never forget, it gave additional opportunities for the several secret political police agencies to penetrate the Brotherhood and related entities with greater effect.)
All of this implies that Mubarak is a crafty and calculating political survivor. His use of robust coercion, official terror as well as his willingness to rule by decree when such is either necessary or merely desirable show Hosni is one determined dude, determined to hold on to power by all means necessary be they fair or foul. Taken together, these aspects of the Egyptian dictator's character indicate strongly that he is not going to exit the stage easily or gracefully despite his advanced years (he is on the wrong side of eighty) and less than splendid health.
There is no sign that the Egyptian army is likely to emulate its Tunisian equivalent. Nor have the internal security police shown any suddenly developed sense of tender mercy or squeamishness. Without defection by either or both of these instruments of state power, the probability of Mubarak acceding to the importuning of people power and getting on a jet plane to Saudi Arabia is very slim to none.
The dissidents are cranking up for another round of monster rallies on Friday following prayer services These may be a real humdinger. But, they will not mean the end of Hosni.
The anti-government movement is diffuse, lacking a national stature leader (although ElBaradie is headed back home from Vienna) and confined in the main to those meriting the loose sobriquet, "youth." On the downside, Mohamad ElBaradei is lacking street cred due to his frequent and prolonged absences from Egypt since announcing his presidential candidacy, which impairs his status as a leader of the demonstrations and the movement of which they are the most dramatic sign.
Another very big unknown is the intention of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been on the sidelines. Perhaps its leadership cadre has been taken by surprise but that seems unlikely. Far more probable is the assessment that the Brotherhood is being cautious. The leaders most probably do not expect the demonstrations to have any useful outcome beyond radicalizing an ever larger segment of the politically disaffiliated. This means the Brotherhood will have a much larger potential recruitment pool in the months to come.
Another, less probable, motive for the Brotherhood's bystander posture is they are waiting for the main chance. In the event that Mubarak does decide that a trip to Saudi Arabia is in his best interests, the Brotherhood will be in the catbird seat for a takeover bid. The Brotherhood is very large, quite well organized, highly motivated, sufficiently financed, possesses tendrils nearly everywhere (including the armed forces), and can count on the support of the clerics and faculty of al-Azar university. In short, it is the only entity in Egypt that can take control of the government.
The ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to the seat of power in Egypt would be a very real nightmare for the Deep Thinkers of Global Strategy in Washington. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could equal the mullahocracy of Iran as a sinister actor in the region and on the global stage. From the perspective of either Israel or the US, the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of Egypt is a worst case scenario--on steroids.
There is not much the US government can do to directly influence events in Egypt in the short run. And, there is not a whole lot more it can do in the longer term. In a very real sense we chopped off our options when we climbed into bed with Mubarak back in the days following Camp David. The perceived imperatives of the Cold War and the quest for Mideast peace pushed the US and Mubarak together in a marriage of mutual necessity. When the Cold War ended, the continued search for the chimera of Arab-Israeli peace precluded ending the marriage.
The coming of Osama bin Laden and with him the challenge of violent political Islam prevented any sane and objective reassessment of the American support for the Egyptian autocrat. We were stuck with him. And, stuck with him today we remain. Our least-worst option is to hope that (and in a low key way, assist) Mubarak remains in power.
Mubarak may be as unpalatable as cyanide but the Muslim Brotherhood would be much, much worse. And, that, bucko, is all the choice we have.