Egypt has been the heartbeat of the Muslim Arab world for millennia. The problem is we don’t yet which way those dominoes will fall – towards us or against us. We don’t know if the euphoria we see in Tahrir Square today will end ultimately in jubilation or tears.
On one hand, in just a few years' time, we could see all the Muslim states from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, even as far east as Pakistan, with some form of consensual government, moving in fits and starts toward democracy, with American students racing to the Middle East to spend their junior year abroad learning Arabic. On the other hand, we could just as easily see all those states in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, bent on establishing a Caliphate throughout the region and beyond, sending terrorists to Europe and America. And it's unlikely to be anything in between.
So how do we help nudge it in the democracy direction, and help those dominoes fall in our direction? It will be a heavy lift. For at least 5,000 years Egypt has been governed by pharaohs and dictators and generals and kings. Egypt has none of the institutions or traditions of civil society necessary for self government: a free press, freedom of speech or assembly, an independent judiciary, political parties or open transparent elections. Yet in seven months' time the Egyptians are scheduled to go to the polls and vote in a new government.
That's a lot of things that need to be accomplished in a few months time if Egypt’s elections are to be anything more than one man, one vote, one time. As we have seen in Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, elections a democracy do not make.
While the U.S. may have been on the sidelines in the last two weeks as Egypt has struggled to break loose from an autocracy, our role going forward will be crucial. If the U.S. takes an active role in helping the Egyptians create the institutions of a free society, it could be a beacon for all Arab and Muslim countries in the region. If not, Egypt could become the tip of the spear of Islamic jihad.
In my adult lifetime, there were two moments in history that compare to Tahrir Square: the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 80s. When the Berlin Wall came down, President Reagan and his successor, President Bush, flooded the former Warsaw Pact countries with people who knew how to set up the institutions of free societies. Today, those countries are vibrant democracies, pro-American to the core.
Contrast that to what happened when the Iranian people toppled the Shah in 1978. In the following months, President Carter sat on his hands, didn't send in the advisers, preferring to leave Iran to the Iranians. In short order all those reformers were pushed aside and slaughtered by the better organized, more ruthless Islamic fundamentalists. Today, Iran is in a race to develop a nuclear weapons, and regularly calls for the destruction of the United States, the Great Satan.
After the well-deserved euphoria subsides, the challenges will remain – high unemployment, poverty, a stagnant economy. How Egypt goes about grappling with them, and how successfully they defeat them, will change the world. Whether Egypt is the next Iran or the next Eastern Europe will depend on the Egyptians themselves, but we can offer a helping hand. While we should never tell them what do to, we can help them do it.
Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Monday at 10 a.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3" already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.