The outcome in Egypt is still far from clear, but it is becoming clearer by the day that Hosni Mubarak will not make it to the 30th anniversary of his assuming the presidency, in October. Most likely, Mubarak is down to two choices: Hang on until elections scheduled for September, or leave power soon in the hands of a military-backed transitional government.
Both choices suggest that the Egyptian military will be the ultimate arbiter, and that a true Egyptian democracy is still years away. Neither choice speaks to the fulfillment of the desires of the tens of thousands of Egyptians who have stood their ground on streets where aspirations of freedom have died many times before.
The emerging consensus candidate, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appears a lackluster prospect. ElBaradei was at best ineffectual, and at worst feckless, as the international community’s chief liaison for a time with nuke-hungry Iran. It is no comfort that he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his fruitless efforts. I have a hard time imagining such a man conjuring the strength, wisdom and will to shepherd a nation in open revolt into a stable, peaceful democracy.
Then again, who — in a country where real political power has been held so tightly for more than a generation — could be a serious candidate to act as such a shepherd?
There may be many reasons why the situation is so grim. But for the part of Americans, via our government, one lesson is clear. The time for demanding real change and reforms in a country such as Egypt with a regime such as Mubarak’s, into which we have poured tens of billions of dollars, is not when the people have finally taken to the streets and defied the tanks.
The time is much earlier — before the strongman loses has the authority to enact such reforms, but also before our threats to cut off foreign aid amount to little more than a final nail in the regime’s coffin.
Whether or not we should still spend billions and billions each year in such aid will be part of the conversation as we decide how to get our own fiscal house in order. But this should be a red line: No more aid for undemocratic rulers who aren’t moving their people toward greater liberty.