The toppling of Egypt's modern-day pharaoh through peaceful mass protests, aided by Facebook and Twitter, marks a watershed for Egypt and the entire Arab world. Contrary to widespread anxieties in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, it will also serve the long-term interests of the United States - and Israel.
Many analysts of Egypt have been warning for years that the status quo under Hosni Mubarak was not sustainable. A repressive and deeply corrupt dictatorship was sitting on top of a social volcano - an increasingly young, urbanized, digitally connected population seething over the lack of freedom, dignity and economic opportunity. A quarter of Egypt's working-age youth are unemployed and many more under-employed. Over the past two decades, average incomes in Egypt stagnated while they doubled or tripled elsewhere in the region.
Think of what could have happened. Many observers (including myself) worried that the growing alienation of young Egyptians might flow in anti-American, anti-Israeli and radical Islamist directions. The inevitable eruption could have turned violent, resulting in the kind of bloody suppression that gripped Algeria in the early 1990s, when 200,000 died. Or it might have been hijacked by radical Islamists who would ride the popular revolution to power, as in Iran in 1979.
So far, none of these have happened. The millions of Egyptians who have poured into the streets of Cairo and other cities have not been chanting "down with America," nor have their protests been about Israel (or the Palestinians). Rather, they want freedom, justice and accountability in Egypt. They have mobilized for democratic change with extraordinary discipline, imagination and moderation. In the face of killings, provocations, arrests and torture, they have adhered to nonviolence as a sacred principle.
In achieving the first condition for Egypt's liberation, the departure of the pharaoh, through peaceful grassroots mobilization, a huge chip has been lifted from their shoulders. Now Egyptians feel a new sense of pride, confidence and empowerment. And they are beginning to view the United States in a fresh and more hopeful light, not because of President Obama's Cairo Speech in 2009 but because of what he said and subtly did in the last two weeks (after several rhetorical blunders by some in his administration). As the mass protests grew, Obama aligned the United States more explicitly behind the goal of peaceful democratic change, warned the regime against the use of force, and urged Mubarak to step aside. The experience could mark a turning point not just for Egypt but for Barack Obama personally. He now has the chance to nurture democratic change in the Arab world through artful diplomacy and timely assistance, where George W. Bush failed with blunter rhetoric and means.
Israel as well should be reassured by developments so far. Egypt's new (and hopefully temporary) military junta has quickly reaffirmed the country's treaty obligations. Few protesters are calling for abrogation of Egypt's peace with Israel. Most protesters resent Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and want an independent Palestinian state, but mainly they want to transform their own country politically and economically. They know their aspirations for human dignity and economic opportunity can only be met with far-reaching internal reforms, and that the worn-out theme of anti-Zionism is a divergence from that. Israel and its friends should thus welcome democratic change in Egypt. The only way to guarantee a lasting Middle East peace is to root negotiated agreements in the same democratic legitimacy that undergirds the stability and resilience of Israel's political system. As Thomas Friedman recently observed, it is a better bet to make peace with 82 million people than with one man.
The challenge now is to ensure that Egypt's revolution produces a genuine pluralist democracy. This is far from assured.
Egypt's military rulers may well seek to sabotage the transition and restore the old order with a slightly more democratic façade. Or the Muslim Brotherhood (which rejects violent means but clings to Islamist political ends) could gain the upper hand in popular mobilization or elections. But the second scenario will be much more likely to follow, rather than prompt, the first. If a democratic transition unfolds seriously and peacefully through negotiations and reform, and if democratic institutions are well designed, the Muslim Brotherhood will be a significant but minority player.
For Egypt, Mubarak's fall is only the first step along a tortuous path. If its transition leads to democracy, it will produce a much more reliable partner for peace and progress in the Middle East. That is why other democracies in the world should support it in every way possible.