Egypt is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma*

There are a thousand implica- tions to what has been happening in Egypt in recent days and only two of them — two dramatically different views — are depicted in the editorial cartoons at right.

What escalated Friday after tens of thousands of people streamed out of Cairo’s 3,000 mosques after prayers to join in pro-democracy street demonstrations may be a first glimpse of democracy replacing a despotic regime, or it could be the birth pains of yet another theocracy in the Middle East. The most disturbing possibility is that nobody knows, not even in the State Department, which also means nobody knows just what to do right now.

Such complexities are why most of us aren’t diplomats; we are at best interested and wary observers. We’ll make observations — provide talking points if you will — but we’re all happy that we don’t have to make the tough decisions.

There was a day when the equation was simple: Democracy equals good; everything else is less, to varying degrees.

But democracy hasn’t worked out very well for U.S. interests in Gaza, where Hamas took control, or Lebanon, where Hezbollah has gained power. A popular uprising in Iran produced an anti-American theocracy that is attempting to become a nuclear power. And overthrowing a dictator in Iraq has produced a government with ties to Iran that grow stronger by the day.

The U.S. wants to see “real democracy” emerge in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that then leads to what we saw in Iran.”

Well, of course, that’s what the U.S. wants. But while the U.S. has had its differences with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he has been more of a stabilizing than destabilizing influence in the Middle East. Which is exactly why the fundamentalist arm of the uprising wants to see him gone. It should not be forgotten that he came to power with the assassination of an even stronger peacekeeper, Anwar Sadat.

Unhappy precedents

The United States has a history in the Middle East, Central and South America and Asia of supporting undemocratic, even brutal, regimes when it is perceived as suiting the country’s larger political interests. Just such a relationship led to the fall of the Shah of Iran, though it took a generation before it happened.

But the world has changed. Information moves instantaneously today and people can react and uprisings develop much more quickly. There are those who say the uprising in Egypt was inspired by the fall of the government in Tunisia. Certainly the royal houses of Jordan and other Middle Eastern states are watching Egypt with worried eyes.

And in every case, President Barack Obama is obliged to weigh American ideals against hard realities in attempting to decide with whom we should align ourselves, with whom we must align ourselves and with whom we dare not consort.

The difficulty of that calculus is evident in the absence of partisan harping on the president at this critical time. It’s beyond the almost quaint principle that politics stops at the water’s edge. It’s more a reflection that the even the president’s most avid detractors know the stakes are too high this time. And besides, they have no more idea of what’s best than anyone else.

* Paraphrased from Winston Churchill’s 1939 description of Russia.

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