This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
For a while there Thursday – amid spreading rumors that Hosni Mubarak was about to step down – it almost looked as if Egypt were headed for a soft landing.
It was the worst possible set-up for yet another declaration by the Egyptian president that, no, he still intended to take his own sweet time before leaving office.
The popular uprising against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime has always held the potential of turning into something truly nasty – for Egypt, the Middle East and the rest of the world. That potential escalated when a vast crowd of deliriously excited Egyptian got their hopes raised, then dashed abruptly, within a single day.
Even a strongman needs people skills, and the 82-year-old Mubarak seems to have run out of his. All the more reason Barack Obama must do whatever he can to politely, diplomatically and gratefully nudge this old American ally toward the door.
This could still end well in a couple of ways.
One good way would be a responsible military intervention that shifts power from Mubarak’s cronies to a new, democratic, secular government. Another would be his ouster by those very cronies, assuming they are realists enough to know that their day is over, too.
In the Middle East, though, the smart money generally favors the worst outcomes. Those are pretty obvious here.
Bad: A peaceful revolution that turns violent in the face of Mubarak’s foolish attempt to save face and hang on. A bloodbath in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Worse: A “democracy” movement that gets hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Gaza’s popular election of Hamas – a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate – casts a long shadow over the demonstrations in Cairo.
Egypt is not radicalized the way Gaza is, but it’s not short of Islamist radicals. They wouldn’t win the votes of most ordinary Egyptians in free elections, but they wouldn’t necessarily have to. As revolutions in Russia, Germany and many other countries have shown, a minority that operates in lockstep discipline and employs violence can easily prevail over a large, fractious, less-fanatical majority.
The thing about Egypt is, it matters. It is the Arab world’s center of gravity.
Its population of 80 million is more than twice that of Algeria, the next most populous Arab country. Iraq, by comparison, is home to fewer than 24 million Arabs.
If Egypt’s government wants peace with Israel – as it does now – a major Arab-Israeli war is impossible. If Egypt winds up in the hands of radical Islamists, there’s no telling what violent nightmares might follow.
Whatever the odds of a happy ending may be, they fall with every additional week Mubarak clings to the presidency.