Start the Revolution Without Anybody


Hosni Mubarak seems to have gotten another day to pursue his bold vision of remaining president of Egypt for another day. After Mubarak declared his intention to stay in office in a late-night address, President Obama called to deliver what is being characterized as a stern talking-to, which doesn't sound as stern as all that.

The fecklessness of U.S. foreign policy, in contrast to the generally pro-protest tone of the American media and (as far as I can tell) population, makes me wonder what all this says about the American "street." As Reason's man about town Charles Paul Freund wrote extensively back in the days of the Bush Administration's "Freedom Agenda," the choice between Islamists and dictators may be a false choice. But one fact stands out: In all but one of the places you can credibly claim a "Jasmine Revolution" is occurring, the protesters are trying to bring down a government that is to some degree (in the case of Egypt and Jordan, a very great degree) an American ally. Only in Lebanon, where Hezbollah's procedural takeover prompted violence from followers of Saad Hariri, was any part of the pan-Sunni uprising tilted toward a U.S. friend. (And Lebanon, which is dealing with its own cluster of catastrophes, can't really be considered part of this movement.)

That's not an intractable situation. Mark LeVine argues here that Obama needs to get past his aversion to talking democracy, and Ronald Reagan's last-minute turn on Ferdinand Marcos is still the great example of a successful realignment of policy toward a teetering dictator.

The question is who's lined up to take over Egypt. Ayman Nour, the Mubarak challenger who spent four years in prison following the 2005 election, has reportedly been injured in the demonstrations. Nobel laureate Mohammad ElBaradei, who just two days ago seemed like a joker trying to jump in with the winning side, has had his reputation burnished by being hosed down and put under house arrest by the regime. He also has a history of opposition to U.S. policy that makes it hard to tag him as an American puppet. But those are both long shots. Mubarak's prisons hold plenty of innocent people and honorable dissidents, but they also hold some of the worst people on this planet.

Mubarak's going down at all is another long shot. Apparently phone usage has been restored and the internet can't be turned off forever. But what is euphemistically called Egypt's "extensive security apparatus" plays out in reality as a situation where a great many people are implicated in the regime's crimes and have a lot of incentive to keep it in place. In a world where you can't even count on The New York Times to go out of business, you can never underestimate the ability of a discredited institution to linger.

Obama is not to blame for this. Nor was Bush, or Clinton, or the other Bush, or any other president from living memory. You could go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt and his great ambassador James S. Moose (who famously described Arabic as a language that "opens the door to an empty room") and still not have the first thread of America's potentate-oriented Middle East policy. It's a long-ingrained habit, and it will take a long time to lose. But you have to start somewhere.

And in answer to Michael Moynihan's calumny against Omar Sharif, here's a lesson in what happens when you try to kill the king and miss: Sharif as a Nazi with a conscience in the fantastically great and almost totally forgotten Night of the Generals:

Update: Maybe he won't get another day after all. Mubarak's sons evacuated to London. Al Jazeera caller says cops and army have abandoned central Cairo to looters. Wikileaks scuttlebutt on the new vice president. Notes on the new prime minister. Michael Totten has grim polling numbers suggesting what a democratic Egypt might look like. Is this what we can expect for Egypt's great unislamic idols?