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.
The lesson from these events is that America should be anticipating democratic traditions long before a crisis makes them urgent -- trying to encourage the leadership and institutions that will make eventual change less traumatic. These efforts in Egypt were halfhearted and inconsistent. Someday, absent a shift in policy, we are likely to say the same of China. In the modern world, it is a short distance from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen. An active democracy promotion strategy -- engaging authoritarian regimes while cultivating the leaders and parties that may replace them -- is alternately criticized as paternalistic, unrealistic and hypocritical. Until a moment such as this, when it is revealed as the essential, practical work of American diplomacy.
But now the options in Egypt are limited. It is difficult to do much steering when you have already entered the rapids -- though it is worth a try. Repeating its performance following the Iranian protests of June 2009, the Obama administration initially adopted a prudence indistinguishable from paralysis. It does not know how to respond in these situations because it does not know its own mind. Is democracy promotion a naive relic of the Bush era? Or does liberalism, perhaps, have something to do with the confident defense of liberty? At this point, there is little choice but to call for monitored elections later this year that don't include Mubarak.
Many foreign policy experts are serially surprised by demands for self-government in cultures different from our own -- by the tenacity of Iraqi democracy or by the determined crowds in Tehran, Tunis or Cairo. Between these outbreaks, they sneer at the prospect of Jeffersonian ideals taking root in the rocky soil of the Middle East. During these events, they seem embarrassed by the miracle. But the universal desire for self-government does not require a basis in Enlightenment philosophy. It is rooted in the natural human resentment of humiliation. No one wants to be a pawn in the power games of elites forever. Condoning an unjust stability involves the assumption that people will remain in servility, suffering and silence. The pervasive failure of American foreign policy elites is a lack of confidence in American ideals.
Democratic revolutions can be defeated by violence or co-opted by radicals. But again, we are seeing that it is neither principled nor prudent for America to base its strategies in the Middle East on the denial of rights we value.