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Five Things to Understand About the Egyptian Riots

It takes some hubris to write about events unfolding as fast as the protests in Egypt, especially when it’s clear that nobody saw this coming. Mubarak is preparing to address the nation, and it's unclear what will follow. Here are five points that American observers should keep in mind whatever comes next, while consuming the blog posts, Tweets, and TV coverage of their choice.

Revolutions often erupt with little warning. Explosions of popular anger on the “Arab Street” have become a cliché. But no one saw Tunisia coming, and few believed that unrest would spread to Egypt—except the Egyptian activists, apparently young and secular at the core, who have been out on the streets every day since. This morning, I had the chance to ask a member of the House Intelligence Committee whether they had ever been briefed that such a thing was possible. Answer: No. So when the Beltway “experts” tell you what’s going to happen next, take it with a grain of salt. One useful way to think about such revolutions is to remember 1989. There was the revolt in East Germany, which nobody expected to start, and then nobody expected to end peacefully. And then you had Romania, which no one expected to end in a fusillade of bullets... except the Romanians.

Watch the military: There are institutions in Egypt, and they will ultimately, though perhaps not today, make the decisive difference. Years of repression and neglect mean that there’s no obvious civilian—much less secular—force that can immediately step in to govern Egypt. But there are institutions: the military; the security services; blocs of elites around business, academic, and religious institutions; and the political parties and movements. The choices they make now will be central to what happens and how. Right now, it appears that the police have withdrawn from the street rather than escalate to live fire, and that the army is in the street and being welcomed by the protestors—the military has not been deployed in Cairo since 1986 and has never fired on Egyptian civilians, though confused reports of its actions in Cairo today are still emerging.

America can’t stop this revolt. Commentators across the political spectrum can’t seem to keep themselves from implying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by their choice of adjectives, can “save” President Mubarak. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can determine how this turns out. As Michael Hanna has written on Democracy Arsenal, this is less about the state of our union than “the tattered state of their unions.” We can, however, exert some control over whether we are perceived by the citizenry in Egypt and elsewhere as part of the solution. Our diplomats and spokespeople are now at pains to prove, in real time, that when we talk about stability, we mean it in a way that favors the governed, and not just the governors. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution told the Washington Post, our policy options are currently very limited: "The most the U.S. can do in the short run is reorient their rhetoric. ... People want moral support; they want to hear words of encouragement. Right now, they don't have that. They feel the world doesn't care and the world is working against them." But, with talk of a negotiated departure for Mubarak shooting around Twitter, there may come a time when the United States has to become even more involved.

After Mubarak, what? The Egyptian government has done an excellent job of preventing the emergence of rival power centers—and not just those who could pose a threat to Mubarak, but anyone who could serve as a potential successor. The most famous face outside of Egypt is former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, who is well-known in the West and respected, but not universally loved, at home. His efforts to unite Egypt’s opposition behind him have had mixed results, and he seems to have been free and detained at various points during the day.

The ‘Islamist Menace’ is overblown. Some American commentators have argued that Al Jazeera is somehow fanning Islamism and anti-Americanism with its coverage. But as Marc Lynch has pointed out, Egyptian citizens, like Tunisians before them, are so—justifiably—angry at their governments that it’s hard to imagine what new provocations the station could come up with. Similarly, concern about the relative strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses a fundamentalist strain of Islam and has championed and employed violence in the past, should be balanced against three other facts: (1) The Brotherhood has renounced violence and it has been active in Egyptian politics, transformed by an internal debate about whether and how to participate, for some time now; (2) Thus far, observers on the ground report that it is young, secular Egyptians who are leading this revolt; (3) The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition organization in Egypt, is a first-rank enemy of Al Qaeda, and has been for decades. (A chapter in the recent “Self-Inflicted Wounds” from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center lays out the feud, and how it has played out in Egypt, South Asia and elsewhere, in detail. Briefly, the Brotherhood’s goals have been more political and focused on individual governments—and thus less focused on what Bin Laden refers to as the “far enemy”—the United States homeland.) Meanwhile, it is reasonable to be concerned about the future role of radical extremists where other forces are weak, but this kind of scaremongering is actually quite ignorant; it’s also disheartening and potentially damaging to the true democrats—some of whom organize around Islam, and some of whom don’t—that are doing the struggling and dying right now. Americans, like others around the world, are instinctively cheering for them. They are right to do so.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network.