Optimists express cautious hope that a truly democratic successor government, one also friendly to the West, will emerge from the turmoil. Pessimists fear that Egypt in 2011 will instead be distressingly similar to Iran in 1979, with the Muslim Brotherhood pushing aside more secular factions and creating a staunchly Islamic, anti-U.S. state.
Mubarak’s fate today may indeed only reinforce the lesson of history. Washington has almost always been embarrassed — or worse — by its long-time support of authoritarian rulers. Though there are times when the Washington may need to make common cause with unsavory regimes to protect crucial U.S. interests — those occasions should be the exception rather than the rule.One long-time autocratic client of the United States, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, has already fallen. Now Mubarak is clearly under mounting pressure — though there is an outside chance he may yet survive. Meanwhile, there are signs of growing discontent with pro-U.S. regimes in places like Yemen and Jordan.
Washington has been down this path before — in many parts of the world. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders embraced numerous autocratic allies and clients who professed to be anti-Soviet. Popular rebellions toppled many of those leaders, often with shocking speed. The aftermaths covered a wide spectrum — ranging from the election of stable, democratic, pro-U.S. successor governments in South Korea to a cauldron of chaos and civil war in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.