Revolutions often erupt with little warning. Explosions of popular anger on the “Arab Street” have become a cliché. But no one saw Tunisia coming, and few believed that unrest would spread to Egypt—except the Egyptian activists, apparently young and secular at the core, who have been out on the streets every day since. This morning, I had the chance to ask a member of the House Intelligence Committee whether they had ever been briefed that such a thing was possible. Answer: No. So when the Beltway “experts” tell you what’s going to happen next, take it with a grain of salt. One useful way to think about such revolutions is to remember 1989. There was the revolt in East Germany, which nobody expected to start, and then nobody expected to end peacefully. And then you had Romania, which no one expected to end in a fusillade of bullets... except the Romanians.
Watch the military: There are institutions in Egypt, and they will ultimately, though perhaps not today, make the decisive difference. Years of repression and neglect mean that there’s no obvious civilian—much less secular—force that can immediately step in to govern Egypt. But there are institutions: the military; the security services; blocs of elites around business, academic, and religious institutions; and the political parties and movements. The choices they make now will be central to what happens and how. Right now, it appears that the police have withdrawn from the street rather than escalate to live fire, and that the army is in the street and being welcomed by the protestors—the military has not been deployed in Cairo since 1986 and has never fired on Egyptian civilians, though confused reports of its actions in Cairo today are still emerging.
America can’t stop this revolt. Commentators across the political spectrum can’t seem to keep themselves from implying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by their choice of adjectives, can “save” President Mubarak. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can determine how this turns out. As Michael Hanna has written onDemocracy Arsenal, this is less about the state of our union than “the tattered state of their unions.” We can, however, exert some control over whether we are perceived by the citizenry in Egypt and elsewhere as part of the solution. Our diplomats and spokespeople are now at pains to prove, in real time, that when we talk about stability, we mean it in a way that favors the governed, and not just the governors. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution told the Washington Post, our policy options are currently very limited: "The most the U.S. can do in the short run is reorient their rhetoric. ... People want moral support; they want to hear words of encouragement. Right now, they don't have that. They feel the world doesn't care and the world is working against them." But, with talk of a negotiated departure for Mubarak shooting around Twitter, there may come a time when the United States has to become even more involved.
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