Lenin may have been a lousy Marxist, but he was a highly perceptive revolutionary when he cautioned that people were likely to be steamrollered by history -- which may be what is taking place in the Middle East right now. Last week's uprising in Tunisia has sparked far more critical unrest in Egypt, and potentially Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere. Liberals were quick to see the Egyptian riots as peaceful protests and a just reaction to the failings of an aging Mubarak Government.
Certainly they have some legitimate points. Mubarak has been in power for some three decades; his record on human rights is not ideal; there is serious corruption within the ruling party; and economic conditions are disastrous. Some of the most sensible statements these days come from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed hope for a peaceful transition to a more democratic government in the relatively near term, but has not been willing to pull the plug on Mubarak -- and for good reason. Left to spin out of control the net result of the current rioting will most likely be the transition of Egypt into another fundamentalist Islamic state, and we will be facing not a democratic regional partner in peace, but a clone of modern Iran.
The parallels to the fall of the Shah of Iran and his government in 1979 are both striking and uncomfortable. At that time the Shah was pressured by the Carter Administration to release a large number of Iranian dissidents from jail, who immediately took up arms against him. Ailing with cancer, he was refused medical treatment in the U.S. and this long time ally of America treated like an international pariah. What quickly followed was the implosion of the Iranian government and the Iranian Revolution conducted in the name of freedom, democracy and human rights. What resulted, however, is a rogue regime, bent on nuclear weapons, and the prime supporter of terrorism and radical Islamic activities throughout the region.
Many things have changed in the three decades since the Iranian Revolution, and not all for the better. Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have mushroomed in the Middle East and elsewhere. At the same time new technologies in communications, information and the media have enabled dissent and revolution to travel at warp speed. Crises in any nation can be viewed globally in real time. Web sites, social networking sites, email, and cell phones enable and support these activities as well as information about them. Not surprisingly the Egyptian government moved to temporarily shut off these capabilities.
While some in Washington had hoped for a peaceful protest and the prospect for a new and more democratic regime in Egypt, such dreams may be far different from the reality that emerges. The current situation is highly uncertain, and there are significant prospects that Egypt could move in a far different direction. Within the last few days the "seal" which Egypt has placed on Gaza has been removed. Members of the Iranian-sponsored Hamas are moving from Gaza to Egypt to help the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Arab groups.
President Hosni Mubarak has taken predictable and by most standards reasonable actions to maintain order. Egypt's internal security forces were redeployed across the country on January 30th after abandoning the Cairo streets the previous day in a demonstration, clearly showing what chaos would ensue should they be undermined by the military. The street protests show no signs yet of dwindling, while Mubarak and his Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who remain in power so far, are appear to be betting that the protesters will be unable to form a unified group, will ultimately run out of steam and clear the streets giving them time to bring an orderly end to the Mubarak presidency.
It is increasingly unlikely, however, that Mubarak may not get his wish, and there is serious potential for further clashes, particularly in light of existing hostilities between the army and the police, as well as between the police and protesters. In any serious confrontation the army holds the upper hand, and for now the army does not appear inclined to confront the protesters and may ultimately come to join them.
Mubarak's days as Egypt's President are numbered and he may not be able to complete his current term in office as he now indicates he would like. Whether he leaves within days or is somehow allowed to complete his current term as President is right now an open questions. The critical issue, however, will be the nature of the transition and the composition of Egypt's next government. The U.S., Israel and others would certainly prefer a secular democratic regime that maintains strong relations with the U.S. and the peace with Israel that has prevailed since the Camp David accords.
The fundamental problem now is that while a large majority of the demonstrators are frustrated by legitimate economic woes and other concerns they are not united and have don't yet have a viable political alternative. At the same time religious radicals such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others are organized and supported by Iran. Should they be allowed to fill a political vacuum the results could be catastrophic for Egypt and the region. Egypt could become another Iran. In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution there was a transition to the government of Mahdi Bazargan and later Abolhassan Banisadr, but soon was transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist power grab which continues to this day.
To make matters worse, the spark set off in Tunisia last week has already become a fire storm in Egypt and could easily spread to Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere. For the U.S., Israel and their allies it is a time for watchful waiting, but also one where we need to think seriously about realistic scenarios for the future of the region.