WASHINGTON -- In June 2005, along with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I met nine Egyptian opposition figures, including presidential candidate Ayman Nour, in a shabby Cairo conference room. Rice was in Egypt to deliver a speech calling on President Mubarak to allow free elections. We hoped and half-believed the door to reform was open. Nour, with more direct experience, said it would remain a "revolving door" under Mubarak's rule. One participant explained to me that the security agent shadowing him was waiting downstairs, more concerned with intimidation than with secrecy. The leaders in the room were isolated, harassed, beleaguered and not particularly impressive.
This is the Mubarak legacy. In the name of weakening Islamism, he undermined all legitimate opposition, often forcing dissent into the radical mosque. If the alternatives to Mubarak's rule are poor, it is because he did his best to make it so.
American complicity in this strategy was often described as "realism," helping to assure the stability of a favorable regime. This is the diplomatic habit of mind that declared Mubarak's government to be "stable" on Jan. 25 -- as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did shortly before the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party were set aflame. In fact, this brand of realism always lacked a realistic endgame. Dictatorships are particularly vulnerable during transitions. It was never likely that Egypt's military dictatorship would become a hereditary monarchy, headed by Mubarak's lackluster son Gamal.
Governments that lack legitimacy -- that are founded on a monopoly of heavy weapons -- are inherently unstable. What makes Mubarak fit to govern others? His great economic achievements? His summons to compelling national purposes? Mubarak has survived by suffocating opposition and being strategically useful to the United States. What sway do these justifications now have on the streets of Cairo? Dictatorships are inevitable until the moment fear lifts and they become incredible. A 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia is humiliated and sets himself on fire in protest. The dictator flees. Demonstrators turn out in Cairo. The Egyptian Cabinet is dismissed. Such is the fragility of oppression.