Events in the Middle East are happening so quickly it is hard to step back, catch your breath, and see the bigger picture. Even if you do, there are so many cross currents, it’s hard to see where this is heading. First Tunisia, then Egypt, and no one knows who’s next. Libya? Jordan? Maybe even Iran? The only thing that seems certain is every Muslim country in North Africa and the Middle East is potentially in play. And, as we saw in Egypt, events are moving at warp speed.
No one knows how this will end. The dominoes have started to fall, but no one knows whether they will fall away from us or toward us. We don’t know if the euphoria we saw in Tahrir Square will lead ultimately to tears or triumph. The great danger is this could end in repressive, Islamist regimes from Tunisia to Pakistan. The great opportunity is this could lead to free and democratic countries throughout the Muslim world.
If the dominoes fall away from us, we could be locked into a clash of civilizations of biblical proportions between the democratic West and a radical Islamist Caliphate bent on spreading Sharia law throughout the world. If the dominoes fall toward us, we could see a flowering of freedom, development and economic opportunity throughout the region, and a golden era of peace and prosperity throughout much of the world. The stakes could not be higher.
That’s why it is crucial that the United States do everything in its power to help the dominoes to fall in its own direction. While the outcome is up to the Egyptians … and Tunisians … and Libyans … and Iranians … there is much we can do to help their efforts along.
All revolutions follow a pattern, a three-act play.
In Act I, a coalition of reformers rises up to overthrow an autocratic dictator. Sometimes it takes years, as in Poland and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Sometimes it takes just days, as we’ve seen in Egypt.
In Act II the reformers try to govern. But they’ve never done it before, and they make mistakes. They struggle to create from whole cloth the institutions necessary for self-government. Once so united, the reformers soon start falling out amongst themselves.
In Act III their fate is decided. If the reformers can pull together and hold some sort of free elections, they’re on their way to self-government. If they don’t, a minority group of well-organized, ruthless extremists will crush the liberal reformers and impose their own authoritarian government. The play ends in tragedy.
This is a play we’ve seen twice before, once in Iran in 1978/79, and again in Eastern Europe in 1989/80 -- each time with a different ending. When the Iranian people rose up against the shah, it caught the U.S. by surprise. President Jimmy Carter withdrew his support for the shah, and once the Iranian military sided with the reformers, the shah was toppled. Carter then hesitated; he failed to support the Iranians in the next step of their revolution. He waited to see how things would turn out, preferring to leave it to the Iranians to stabilize the situation. But the Iranian people lacked the institutions necessary to transition to democracy. It was a big problem.
So, the liberal reformers were shoved aside by the charismatic but ruthless Ayatollah Khomenei, and the better organized Shiite Mullahs established a repressive Islamist state.
Whichever path Egypt takes, it is likely other Arab Muslim states in the region will follow suit. To varying degrees, they all have the same dynamics Egypt does: very large youth populations, high unemployment and inflation, and little prospect things will improve. Most of them have aging, autocratic leaders, who’ve enriched themselves and their cronies, and who have no clear succession plans other than to hand things off to their children. Now that Egypt has shown the way and toppled its Pharaoh, the neighboring countries realize their own leaders are also vulnerable. And they, too, will head to the streets to protest for political and economic reform.
Egypt’s transition is unlikely to go as smoothly as it has for the past month. The economic problems and social ills will still be there even after Mubarak has left. If there is a power vacuum, or confusion as Egypt encounters growing pains before a new regime takes root, some experts argue that the better organized Muslim Brotherhood will swoop in to fill the void, the way the Ayatollah did in Iran, arresting and executing the liberal reformers who lack a specific platform or charismatic leader. These experts believe in all likelihood Egypt may already be lost; it’s only a matter of time before it becomes another Iran, exporting Islamic extremism through North Africa and the Middle East, and launching another Arab-Israel War. Perhaps. But not necessarily.
For decades Americans have preached democracy in the Muslim world, yet propped up autocratic leaders who denied a voice to their own people. We did it because it advanced our interests in the region, and provided stability and access to resources. It was understandable, and it did keep peace in the region. But we did it uncomfortably, and saw it as a necessary and temporary evil. American leaders knew it was unsustainable in the long run; that eventually the people in those countries would say “enough.” For years we tried to nudge our autocratic allies toward democratic reform, to no avail.
The choice has now been made for us, by the people of Egypt. There is no turning back the clock. To bemoan the stability those autocratic regimes once offered Israel and the U.S. is like crying over spilled milk. We need to get over it and move on. America cannot change the past, but it can affect the future.
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.