Mubarak, after all, has been a good ally to the United States in a region of the world where that is not always the easiest thing to do; under his leadership Egypt has been both a leader in the Arab world and a symbol that peace with Israel and cooperation with the United States is possible.
On the other hand, obviously we want to see actual democracy in Egypt and if we take a principled approach to our relations with the rest of the world, the self-determination of the Egyptian people ought to be the highest goal we could encourage in that nation. We can be reasonably hopeful that a post-Mubarak Egypt would remain on good terms with the West, but not certain.
Standing by doing nothing, moreover, pleases no one and may embitter whatever leader comes out on top of Cario’s current struggles. Egypt is the most ancient civilization on Earth and has the richest history of anywhere on Earth. So perhaps it is to the wisdom of the past that we should look:
…it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.
And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.
For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs o everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.
Il Signore Niccolò could be speaking directly to President Obama here. Actions should be strictly motivated by angles for advantage, and public statements should come dressed in the trappings of the highest moral ideals. Prior commitments and loyalties should only be honored in fact to the extent that honoring them is actually useful.
Mubarak has been a good and useful ally. But that is irrelevant. Which side we should support should be determined on which side promises to deliver more advantage to the U.S.A., and nothing more. Outwardly, we should be piously observant of the ideals of democratic self-determination, human rights and liberty, and the free traffic of both commerce and information among peoples.
How can we do this? The most sensible thoughts on the issue I’ve yet read can be found here.
If we can be reasonably confident that the Muslim Brotherhood will not get into a position of power, in a democratic Egypt, then Mubarak should be eased out peacefully, perhaps naming Mohammed ElBaradi as the “First Minister” or something like that. After a period of time, Mubarak resigns and retires to a sinecure somewhere that, importantly, is not in Egypt. Then a new constitution gets adopted, elections take place with the U.N. and Jimmy Carter and all the rest of the hoopla to make sure it’s free and fair — since as long as the really bad guys aren’t going to call any meaningful shots, we like democracy.
But if there is a realistic chance that the bad guys could take power, then Mubarak stays.