February 3, 2011

Mubarak can stay, but only in disgrace

For many years, Hosni Mubarak has sold himself to the West and the Israelis -- and the Egyptian people -- as a force of stability and moderation.Since Tuesday, he can no longer make this claim with even a veneer of credibility, nor present himself as a hero to his fellow Egyptians. His violent crackdown against peaceful and overwhelmingly anti-Mubarak protesters moves him from tolerable autocrat to embarrasing pariah.

This may sound heartless, but many countries find themselves allied with dictators, especially in regions with few if any democratic governments. It's a Devil's deal -- keep your repressive enforcement tactics below the radar, make some pretense of representative government, and we'll focus on your positive attributes. 

A line is crossed when a leader openly overstays even his own pretext for power. In Tunisia, the revolt happened too quickly for most nations to renounce then-President Ben Ali. In the case of countries like Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe and Belarus, we don't need their friendship enough to keep looking the other way when that line is crossed. Because of Mubarak's role in sustaining bilateral peace with Israel and promoting broader Mideast efforts -- and the inextricable billions in U.S. assistance -- it will not be so easy to break with Egypt and our leverage over him is limited. But neither can we keep looking the other way. The genie is out of the bottle.

Mubarak has lost the confidence of his own people, and he is willing to attack and impoverish them. He is willing to sack the Egyptian Museum's 5,000 years' worth of Egyptian cultural heritage. He is willing to take Egypt down with him. Unless he loses the support of his own military sponsors or gives up on his own, Mubarak will probably get to stay in power, but without the aura of domestic legitimacy and international respectability.

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