Cairo is burning

Let us hope that other Arab thrones might burn as brightly

It is the eleventh straight day of protests in Egypt, and nearly every day has been marked by fierce and violent clashes between protesters and riot police. The president, Hosni Mubarak, an 82-year old autocrat, has only avoided the fate of his Tunisian counterpart by sacking his entire government and scheduling elections for September, at which point he claims he will step down. Given the mercurial nature of revolutions, and of Arab revolutions in particular, anything is possible — but for now, the Egyptian regime seems set to end with a whimper, not a bang.

Embarrassingly for Rupert Murdoch et al., it is Al Jazeera that has provided the best coverage of the unrest. One might wonder snarkily why U.S. viewers weren’t treated to Wolf Blitzer reporting live via hologram from Alexandria, but a proper excoriation of the sorry excuse for journalism that we call U.S. cable news needs more column inches than there are here to do it justice. For now, let it suffice to say that the lead Al Jazeera has taken is symbolic: this is an Egyptian moment. It is a fully organic movement born out of Arab frustration and not American prompting; the U.S. pressured Mubarak to keep the December 2010 elections honest, but he rigged them anyway, and when the chips were down, we did nothing of substance to penalize him.

Many have taken the opportunity to judge the United States and find it morally wanting. But it is hardly fair to blame the U.S. for finding a modus vivendi with the regimes that are ubiquitous throughout the Middle East. Should we have held our breath and refused to deal with undemocratic states? And what of those countries that have made democratic reforms — should we now hold our breath and refuse to deal with them until they treat women and homosexuals as equals, or embrace the full plethora of human rights? Foreign policy cannot be about moralistic stands — it must be driven by rational objectives and practical ends. The U.S. has a small set of carrots and sticks that it can use as leverage; given the previous widespread apathy of the Arab street toward democratic reform, the decision to apply our influence toward keeping peace between Middle Eastern states was amply justified.

And as for the charge that U.S. support for undemocratic regimes is the wellspring of anti-American sentiment, the critics have forgotten their history. Organized Arab anti-Americanism began in Egypt itself with president-cum-strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ginned up the idea as a way to bolster his undemocratic, nationalistic rule. This happened despite the lengths that America went to help Egypt; during the Sinai War we intervened to prevent Israel, France, and Britain from carving off huge portions of Egypt. In doing so we ended the role of our allies, France and the United Kingdom, as global powers and kept the Suez, a vital choke-point for international shipping, in non-aligned hands. Let it be known that no good deed goes unpunished.

In any case, the past is the past. The protests in Egypt present the United States with a choice: watch Mubarak fall, and with him years of effort at peace in Israel, or back the opposition and work to promote democratic reforms in the Arab world.

Since 1979 and the Camp David Accords, we have sent $1.3 billion per year to Egypt as a bribe to stay out of war with Israel. Regime change in Egypt is unlikely to produce a military strike on Israel — not least of all because today’s Egyptian military is no match for the IDF, but also because few rational actors would give the U.S. an excuse to withdraw such a large amount of aid.

However, while a new regime in Egypt is unlikely to start military trouble with Israel, it is likely to withdraw its support for Palestinian moderates who are negotiating a two-state solution. Without moderates at the helm, there is little hope of finding an agreement. The collapse of peace talks, as it has in the past, would be likely to signal the start of a fresh round of violence and retribution.

No American president should blithely surrender a chance for peace in Israel, but the opportunity to spur broader democratic reform in the Arab world is too tantalizing to pass up. The peace process is, by many accounts, already dead in the water, and the leak of the “Palestinian Papers” notwithstanding, it is Israel and its conservative government that shoulder most of the blame for the failure.

The U.S. has unprecedented leverage over its Arab allies to push for real democratic reform. Now, while Arab monarchs and strongmen sit with the Damoclean sword of popular revolt hanging over their heads, the U.S. has an opportunity to run the table and demand fresh civil liberties, freedom for political prisoners, and greater representation by opposition groups, using every dollar of aid and every diplomatic favor as bargaining chips.

There are plenty of reasons to support democracy and freedom as ends in and of themselves. However, we should not pursue this democratic transition out of an idealistic faith in the peacefulness or pro-Americanism of democratic states, but instead out of a realistic calculation of our self-interest. Whether governed by strongmen or elected representatives, states face the same security dilemmas and foreign policy motivations, and are likely to come up with the same answers. A democratic Egypt (or Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, or Kuwait) is just as likely to balance its forces against a belligerent Iran and ally with the United States to that end.

The difference is that democratic states are stronger, more internally stable than autocracies. A state that needs fewer soldiers to maintain security at home can project more of its strength abroad; a society that embraces female education, employment, and equality goes to war armed with the output of millions of Rosie the Riveters. The coalition of allies that we assemble to hedge against a Persian hegemony will be unchanged by democratization, and it will be stronger for having given its citizens a voice and enhanced its legitimacy.

As the clock ticks down toward an Iranian bomb, we have limited time with which to prepare the ground. Will we stare down the ayatollahs with a set of fragile and ideologically bankrupt allies, or will we keep Ahmadinejad in check with a constellation of reforming powers? There is too much promise in this moment to suborn it all in short-run service to a half-dead peace process. Both our ideals as well as our long-term national interests lie with a freer Arab world. Mr. Obama, opportunity is knocking — are you home?