Successful revolutions are like graduation days. To a student, the degree brings joy and celebration, but it isn't as important as what he or she eventually does with it. Likewise, to the thousands of democracy protesters in Egypt, their newfound freedom from the regime of Hosni Mubarak ultimately won't matter as much as what they do with it.
Or, perhaps more accurately, what the military chooses to do with it. When Mubarak stepped down on Friday, he handed power to the military, which now gets to decide whether to peacefully help the nation transition into a republic or to establish a brutal regime of its own.
The Obama administration needs to be much more concerned about this than about celebrating how a popular uprising toppled a long-time ally. U.S. interests lie squarely in the center of whatever happens.
Mubarak always posed a troubling contradiction for Washington. He was successful in repelling the type of Islamic fundamentalism that has vexed much of the Middle East, pushing such forces out of Egypt. He also maintained a stabilizing, if not enthusiastic, friendship with Israel. But at the same time he brutally repressed his own people, stifling economic growth and progress simultaneously.
Some analysts have noted that Mubarak was unable to disarm the current protests the way he had previous ones because it lacked any central leadership. The uprising seems to have been spurred by a successful revolution in Tunisia and fueled by the Internet and social media. But while that has given the Egyptian people a heady sense of their own power, it will make the coming weeks and months a political high-wire act. When a power vacuum occurs, all types of factions vie to fill it. Central among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, a stridently anti-Israel group steeped in violence, but whose newest leaders in Egypt appear willing to moderate and compromise.
We appreciate the sentiments of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, who wrote in the Guardian that the military ought to establish a committee of non-political technocrats to run the country while a separate committee of trusted leaders reforms the constitution and establishes rules for an upcoming election. Then that election should be conducted under the watchful eye of the judiciary and under military protection, but not interference.
Egypt's importance in the Middle East cannot be overstated. If it were to fall into fundamentalist hands, or if it severed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the region would be dangerously destabilized and the Egyptian people would be far more repressed than they were under Mubarak. However, if it embraces liberty and a republican government, it would be a powerful model of reform that could inspire people in other Arab nations.
Unfortunately, democracy is no guarantor of freedom. Egyptians, like Palestinians, might freely choose radicalism. But it is the best tool available for self-determination. The world will be watching pensively.