Support for Egyptian protests should be cautious, patient

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The last week has seen tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets of Egypt. “Freedom!” they cry in Arabic. “No, no, Mubarak,” read the signs, referring to the nation’s president for the last 30 years. It is an awakening of a popular movement that has long been suppressed. Across the Arab world, authoritarian governments fear a wave of unrest that could topple long-standing regimes. Tunisia’s dictator fled just a few weeks ago and was replaced with a representative government. The fate of Egypt’s leaders remains uncertain. And while its people are not Arab, Iran’s citizens have shown themselves willing to demand reforms in the past elections. The status quo, always fragile, seems to be on the verge of collapse. The future is unclear.

Those of us who have no direct stake in the popular movements in the Muslim world have our own dilemma. How do we feel about those uprisings? Do we support the will of the protesters or the strength of the authorities? In such a volatile region, every result carries its own dangers.

At first glance, we immediately sympathize with the protesters in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has done little to help his people in his last three decades of rule. He has used the police and other official agencies to suppress dissent, such as that expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a minority (and illegal) political party with an Islamist agenda. Egyptians want better economic conditions and more political freedoms. They want freedom from the oppressive regime that controls their country. As Americans, and as free-thinking human beings, we cannot help but want them to succeed.

Despite the moral simplicity that supporting the protesters offers, there are more subtle consequences of a collapse of the existing order in Egypt. East of the Nile Delta lies the Suez Canal, an essential transport route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Uncertainty over the security of the canal has led to international conflict before, and political turmoil in Egypt might threaten international trade.

To the northeast of the Suez Canal lie Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, both of which would feel profound effects from a major change in Egyptian government. Egypt and Israel have a peace agreement gained from several wars since 1948. The two counties have limited military cooperation, and Israel relies on maintaining a peaceful southern border. A new government in Cairo could destroy that tenuous relationship, leading to resumed conflict between the two most technologically advanced armies in the immediate region. A new, sensible Egyptian authority would realize that such a setback would be disastrous for both countries, but it is impossible to predict the outcome of a popular revolution. Skeptics are already looking to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution to see the potential catastrophe that might result. An Israeli-Egyptian relationship that is at the very least not hostile is essential to retaining any semblance of peace in the Middle East.

Along with the possibility of decaying relations with Israel, a new Egyptian government might not see the United States as an ally, as Mubarak does. Political changes in the Middle East have rarely helped America’s foreign policy. President Barack Obama’s halfhearted support for the current Egyptian protests, coupled with the United States’ long support for the Mubarak government, mean that a new popular regime would have little reason to love Obama or his country. And while many reports have identified the protesters as largely secular, there are also Islamist, anti-American elements which might exercise power in a post-Mubarak government.

As fast as the uprising in Tunisia was, and as fast as the protests in Egypt are moving now, it is impossible to predict what will happen this evening, much less a month from now. Nobody can say whether Mubarak will hold on to power or if his regime will fall. What is clear, though, is that this complex situation requires caution. As much as we might wish to unreservedly support the protesters, we must also recognize that their victory might ultimately create more problems than it solves. Egypt has a democratic constitution, and a solution through the legally established political process has a better chance of success than an overthrow of the government. Mubarak should realize his rule has come to an end and resign in favor of an interim leader who will guarantee free, open, and fair elections.