Revolutions are exciting, though one should always bear in mind that a lot of them have ended badly. That usually happens because some bad ideology is at work, such as communism or radical Islam. Since communism is discredited and radical Islam has been in retreat for some time now, I am inclined to welcome the events in Egypt without much reservation. Mubarak was not as bad a tyrant as Saddam, but he was/is pretty bad. The latest news is:
President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would not run for another term in elections scheduled for the fall, appearing on state television to promise an orderly transition but saying he would serve out his term. In comments translated by CNN, he swore that he would never leave Egypt but would “die on its soil.”
Television cameras showed the vast crowds gathered in Tahrir Square in central Cairo roaring, but not necessarily in approval. The protesters have made the president’s immediate and unconditional resignation a bedrock demand of their movement, and it did not appear that the concession mollified them. Reports said that thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square chanted "Leave! Leave!" after the speech.
Mr. Mubarak’s announcement came after President Obama urged him not to run, effectively withdrawing America’s support for its closest Arab ally, according to American diplomats in Cairo and Washington.
The message was delivered by Frank G. Wisner, a seasoned envoy with deep ties to Egypt, the American diplomats said. Mr. Wisner’s message, they said, was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but rather firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader.
This back channel message, authorized directly by Mr. Obama, appeared to tip the administration beyond the delicate balancing act it has performed in the last week — resisting calls for Mr. Mubarak to step down, even as it has called for an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt.
I'm inclined to think Obama has handled this well. I think he learned his lesson from Iran, where he made the mistake of seeming to side with the Ahmadinejad regime. This time he's helping to get the tyrant out, while not giving the protestors exactly what they want. It's definitely risky. One thing about revolutions is that they involve people solving a coordination problem. If the protestors say "good enough" and go home, then Mubarak backtracks, Obama could look like he lied to people struggling for their freedom in order to keep in power one of America's more nefarious allies. On the other hand, an orderly transition could give the silent majority and liberals time to organize. But I don't really know.
I've been surprised to see realists coming to the surface and saying we should back Mubarak. Maybe this doesn't make sense, but I thought Bush had shamed away the old cynical realism forever, by identifying even Republicans with idealistic foreign policy and spreading democracy. Of course, after Iraq a lot of people started declaring themselves "realists," but I see now that I didn't believe them. I thought it was just a way to say "don't blame me!" about the largely inevitable chaos and cost of the transition there. I guess they meant it.
The really interesting question here is how the Iraq War affected this. I don't know the answer, all I can do is speculate; however, I think one answer can be ruled out, and that is that it had no effect at all. The Iraq War was the cause celebre of the last decade. Everybody followed it, thought about it, talked about it, argued about it. It occurred in the heart of the Arab world. Egyptians were certainly paying attention. It altered people's expectations about the use of American power, still an important factor in the region. It gave people a model, certainly not a wholly appealing model, of what Arab democracy could look like. Possibly it delayed the revolution by making people fear the anarchy of regime change. That's certainly more likely than that it had no effect at all. But more likely still, "Iraq the Model", as the name of one blog has it, helped to bring on the Egyptian revolution. (It may not have much affected Tunisia, which is further away and closer to Europe, and obviously Tunisia was the immediate trigger for Egypt. But still.)
I don't exactly mean that Egyptians were saying to themselves: "Look what the Iraqis have got! We want that too!" But even to the extent that Iraq is partly a cautionary tale-- how regime change leads to anarchy and bloodshed-- that might still encourage Arab democrats. If the worst that can happen is Iraq, a few years of violent unrest may, after all, be a price worth paying for a future of freedom, especially for the young, who have less to lose and more to gain. And Egyptians may hope, not implausibly, that they can get the best of Iraq-- free speech; a democratic constitution; real elections and a more honest political life-- while avoiding the worst part, particularly the violence and insecurity (and of course, foreign occupation). Egyptian democrats may feel more confident, having the opportunity to learn from Iraq's experience.
The Iraq War may have affected Egypt in another way too, namely, by creating a tacit credible threat that Mubarak took into account. Mubarak might have been able to hold onto power (might still be able to hold onto power, though it seems unlikely) by a bloody crackdown with large-scale massacres that would have made his regime like Saddam's. Before the Iraq War, that might have been a more appealing option. Now dictators like Mubarak see another possibility: that they'll be overthrown in an American-led revolutionary war and hanged by their despising people. Better to go quietly.
Whether or not the Iraq invasion was a good idea, Tunisia and Egypt and maybe Yemen, etc., show that Bush was prescient in his vision of a democratic transformation of the Middle East. But Egypt also clarifies a couple of things. First, it is a reminder that the old cynical realism which some of Bush's less appealing critics shrieked with rage against him for abandoning, was actually still being practiced, alongside the new, idealistic freedom agenda. We were still allied with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates, Pakistan's Musharraf, and so forth. The Iraq War puts us at least partly on the side of the rising Arab democrats. Yes, we kept channeling aid to Egypt's dictator, but we also expended blood and treasure to remove Iraq's dictator and supervise a difficult transition to democracy there, so we're not totally against the idea of Arab freedom. Arab democrats have at least a reason to be confused about whether we're a friend or an enemy, rather than sure of the latter.