I have been watching with fascination the popular revolution taking place in Egypt during all my non-working, non-sleeping hours. I now remember why I like CNN: it offers the most comprehensive and continuous information on an ongoing crisis of any TV news network. What has become quite clear from watching the ongoing drama in Cairo, much as it was clear in Tunisia, is that a critical turning point in history is taking place. And to my relief, in the most volatile and dangerous part of the world--what Zbigniew Brezinski once called "the Arc of Crisis"--a truly democratically inspired revolution is taking place.
This raises the question of US foreign policy in the face of this crisis. The US is historically a revolutionary power. The first democratic revolution in history, the American Revolution inspired democratic transformation across the world, first in Europe and then in Latin America. The US also inspired what the late Samuel P. Huntington called the "Third Wave" of democratization that swept the Third World beginning in the 1970s. However, Huntington was also the coiner of the concept of the "Clash of Civilizations." So the question for US policy is whether we believe that the operating principle in the emerging transformation of the Middle East and North Africa is Huntington's theory of the spread of democracy or his concept of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
The answer to that question should be coming from those making the revolution itself. There is no or little anti-Americanism, Islamic fundamentalism or even Islamic language coming out of the demonstrators in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. What I see is mostly young people, middle class people, students whose main chant is the removal of a dictator named Mubarak. The US is clearly concerned that it may be about to lose a bulwark for stability and peace in the volatile Middle East. We held our nose while supplying his regime with billions in economic and military assistance. Indeed, we have done in the Middle East what we abandoned as a policy thirty years ago in Latin America: the support of friendly military dictatorships. In Latin America, such friendships were rooted in the Cold War and fear of the spread of the Cuban Revolution. In the Middle East it was strategic interests surrounding the importance of petroleum resources, the Suez Canal and the Arab-Israeli Conflict and more recently the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism from within its midst.
However, now is the time for a strategic shift in policy. There is little the US can do to change history in this case. But we do run the risk of coming out against the thrust of history to the detriment of our own position when the dust settles over the rolling revolution taking place. No doubt the Mubarak administration is more resilient than the Tunisian dictatorship. It may or may not find itself suddenly ousted. But it inevitably will give way to a new political system in Egypt.
US media commentators continue to throw up the specter of a possible Islamist takeover of the Egyptian Revolution as a reason for the Obama administration to be cautious in its support of the revolution. This concern seems rooted more in ignorance than anything else. The Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly will play a role in the new reality, but it will only be one of many forces vying for power. The revolution itself is eminently secular and democratic. This does not mean that the new Egypt will be as malleable to US interests as the Mubarak government. It may also not be as firm a partner in the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, it is unlikely to significantly abandon its peace treaty with Israel or its relationships with the United States. Also, nothing in the current constellation appears to threaten the role of the Army within the Egyptian power balance, although over time its autonomy from civilian rule is likely to shift significantly.
The questions asked by the media are also very naive concerning "who will replace Mubarak?" It is not a question of who, but what. If they get the right what, the who will follow, not before. That is why it is so important that the process move forward for the transition. In this, the Obama administration has been spot on in insisting for a speedy transition. It is clear that the Administration has not and should not specifically ask for Mubarak to step down, although it clearly would like him to. In the end, it won't matter as long as if he remains, it is in a purely ceremonial position until he can "gracefully" leave office.
That is why I was not pleased by Sen. Kerry's response on today's "Meet the Press" that it was up to Mubarak to set a timetable for reform and transition. This is absolutely wrong. Mubarak has only to fully pass to his Vice President the reins of power and let him and his new government work out arrangements and timetables with the opposition. To even think that prior to discussions and negotiations that a timetable is possible is quite naive. I respect Sen. Kerry, but he has no diplomatic experience, only foreign policy experience. There is a big difference. Meanwhile, I was appalled at the statements made by former ambassador to Egypt. Frank Wisner. He must have known that he was not speaking for the Administration when he said that Mubarak should stay on. Again, while he might believe that Mubarak, an old friend, should be allowed the dignity of a prolonged exit, he should never have made such a statement. Wisner is a very seasoned diplomat, someone whom I met in Vietnam 40 years ago when he came to inspect my work there. But even seasoned diplomats make mistakes. Indeed, Wisner is from the old school of realists in the Department, and his preference to stand by old friends, no matter how they have treated their people, is typical of his generation.
In the end, let's give Egypt a chance to work out its own future. Once arrangements are made, there will be plenty of space for the West to help. I spent two years working on democracy promotion programs during the last two years of my Foreign Service career. There are good techniques and programs to help promote free and fair elections, to help develop political parties, civil society and the media in a free society and to perfect the legislative and judicial branches of government and improve civil-military relations. I hope we will expend considerable resources in helping Egypt in this way.