Fear of Islamists Paralyzes the U.S.

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Riot police force protestors back on the Kasr Al Nile Bridge as they attempt to get into Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt.

The language coming out of the Obama Administration has verged on the bizarre as Egypt lurched into another political showdown in the streets on Friday — the latest demonstration saw thousands of anti-government protesters clash with police in Cairo, who fired rubber bullets into the crowds and used tear gas and water cannons on them. President Hosni Mubarak is hailed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, as an "anchor of stability" providing vital assistance to U.S. regional goals, yet the protests demanding his ouster are soothingly described as "an opportunity" for the regime to demonstrate that it is able to respond to the demands of its citizenry by means other than guns, batons and prison cells.

"Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," Secretary Clinton said earlier this week, adding that the government "has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms." She urged the regime to refrain from blocking peaceful protest or shutting off communications networks — pleas that appear to have been ignored going into Friday as the government shut down Internet and SMS communication and arrested activists ahead of the demonstrations planned for after Friday prayers. It's been reported by the AP that the police also used water cannons against Egypt's pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei and his supporters. The wire service wrote that a soaking wet ElBaradei was trapped inside a mosque nearly an hour after him and his supporters were water cannoned. Hundreds of riot police laid siege to the mosque, firing tear gas in the streets surrounding it so no one could leave. The tear gas canisters set several cars ablaze outside the mosque. Several people fainted and suffered burns.

Mubarak may be listening more closely than Clinton is to what the protesters are saying: first and foremost among their "legitimate needs," by their own definition, is for Mubarak to step aside — a cause they have no place to press other than in the streets, since the regime has repeatedly rigged elections to keep Mubarak in power. He may be Washington's most important friend among Arab leaders, but those who will brave the wrath of his security forces in Egypt's streets on Friday believe he is a tyrant whose time is up.

Clinton's urging of Mubarak to make reforms and refrain from the temptation to simply crack down reflects lessons learned by the U.S. from the fall of other friendly autocrats, from the Shah of Iran in 1979 to Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month. Those governments failed to recognize the depth of popular anger and make sufficient political and economic concessions to defuse it. The Obama Administration is simply urging Mubarak to do what is necessary to preserve his regime — while recognizing that the order to fire on unarmed fellow citizens can provoke a crisis in the security forces that can bring down the regime.

Reform is not necessarily the same as democracy, however, and after 30 years under the same President, those who are taking to the streets want regime change rather than the kindlier, gentler Mubarak the U.S. would appear to prefer. The Obama Administration's dilemma over how to respond to Egypt's democracy movement became a little more acute on Thursday when the country's largest opposition party, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, declared its intention to openly participate in Friday's protests. Years of operating in conditions of twilight legality have given the Brotherhood an unrivaled organizational network — its members expect to be arrested and roughed up by the regime — and it is widely viewed as by far the most popular party in the opposition. That's a problem for the U.S., given its singular allergy to Islamist parties in the Arab world, particularly those that challenge its longtime allies.

Democracy movements are attractive to Washington when they target a regime such as Iran's, but in allied autocracies, they're a problem. There's no way for Egypt to be democratic and exclude the Islamists from political participation. The same is true for most other parts of the Arab world — a lesson the U.S. ought to have learned in Iraq, where Islamists have dominated all the democratically elected governments that followed Saddam Hussein's ouster. But when the Islamists of Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006, held under pressure from Washington, the Bush Administration literally did a 180-degree turn on the question of Palestinian democracy. Meanwhile, much of the commentary on Ben Ali's ouster in Tunisia has hailed the apparent absence of Islamists from the protest movement, but that may be premature. After the repression they suffered under the dictatorship, Tunisia's Islamists have yet to emerge, as does the character of a new regime. Islamists may not dominate or even seek to, but don't bet against them becoming an integral part of Tunisian democracy.

There are many different models of Islamist politics competing with U.S. allies and with each other for support in the Middle East, ranging from the violent extremism of al-Qaeda to the modernizing, business-friendly democrats of Turkey's ruling AK Party. But they tend to share a hostility toward U.S. intervention in the region, and toward Israel.

Explaining why the U.S. continues to support Mubarak, the State Department's Crowley on Thursday told al-Jazeera that "Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East ... It's made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that's important; we think that's a model that the region should adopt."

The problem for Washington is that Arab electorates are unlikely to agree. The democratically elected Iraqi government, for example, despite its dependence on U.S. support, has stated its refusal to normalize relations with Israel. A democratic Egypt, whether led by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other opposition party, is unlikely to go to war with Israel given the vast imbalance in military capability, but they're even less likely to accept normal ties given the present condition of the Palestinians. And the most secular liberal activists in Egypt reject with contempt the argument that regional stability can come at the expense of their right to choose their government.

Turkey, once its electorate was given a voice in matters of state, denied the U.S. the right to use its territory to invade Iraq. It has become more assertive in challenging both Israel and the U.S. strategy on Iran. Arab electorates are unlikely to give Washington the sort of support against Iran it gets from the region's pro-U.S. autocrats.

The problem the Administration now confronts is that backing autocrats who support U.S. regional policy is no longer simply uncomfortable given the values Washington professes to uphold: it's increasingly untenable as the forces of demographics, economics and technology gnaw at the bonds imposed by those autocrats. The Egyptians, young and old, that risk life and limb by taking to the streets on Friday may not have the patience for the pace and nature of change envisaged by Secretary Clinton.