Do we sympathize with the tens of thousands of Egyptians marching to topple the regime of Hosni Mubarak? It would be churlish not to. Poverty, insecurity, lack of basic services (the tap water in Cairo is reportedly unsafe to drink), endemic corruption, and political repression have characterized life there for as long as anyone can remember. The military regime lacks legitimacy, having governed since 1967 under a state of emergency.
The Mubarak government can be brutal to its opponents. A 2009 State Department report documented hundreds of human rights abuses as well as dozens of "disappearances," unjust imprisonments, and torture.
Conditions within the prisons and detention centers remained poor. According to observers, prison cells were overcrowded, with a lack of medical care, proper hygiene, food, clean water, and proper ventilation. Tuberculosis was widespread; abuse was common, especially of juveniles in adult facilities; and guards brutalized prisoners.
Elections have been a joke. The press is controlled. So the grievances of the Egyptian public are legitimate and affecting. Though there are no polls of the protesters, it's a safe bet that most are not demonstrating in order to bring about an even worse tyranny than they currently endure. And yet, the world -- particularly the Arab world -- being what it is, that is precisely the most likely outcome.
Egypt, the most populous and influential country in the Arab Middle East, has long been the prize that Islamists have lusted after. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who is Osama bin Laden's first deputy, is the former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terror group committed to imposing a sharia state in Egypt. He has reportedly made toppling Mubarak a top al-Qaida priority.
Though it has been outlawed and repressed, the Muslim Brotherhood (part of the same movement as Egyptian Islamic Jihad) remains the only opposition in Egypt that is organized, disciplined, and ready to seize power. Commentators sniff that Mubarak has "used" the fear of an Islamist takeover to justify his continuation in power for 30 years. But the fact that Mubarak exploited the Islamic threat for his own purposes doesn't make it a mirage.