History is lurching in the Middle East, perhaps forward, possibly backward.
Consequently, some see the newly minted revolution in Tunisia and the unfolding one in Egypt (and possibly Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere) as hopeful news, and others as worrisome.
Color me hopeful.
Obviously, things can -- and probably will -- get worse before they get better. In one or more countries, we could have a modernized replay of the Iranian revolution, in which justified popular discontent with an authoritarian ruler was exploited by Islamists who ultimately imposed an even crueler brand of tyranny.
In Egypt, the role of the Khomeinists would be played by the Muslim Brotherhood. The group serves as something like an Egyptian government in internal exile. If the military allowed it, the Muslim Brotherhood could slide into power almost seamlessly.
Also, the Muslim Brotherhood serves as the Islamist equivalent of the Comintern, the old Soviet headquarters that coordinated, fomented and supported communist movements around the world. Al-Qaeda is something of a Brotherhood spinoff, even though relations between the two groups are reportedly frayed these days because the Brotherhood has gone too mainstream for Osama bin Laden's tastes.
A takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, according to most analysts, seems to be the worst-case scenario. But it's not the only worrisome possibility. At least a takeover by the Brotherhood -- with the feckless anti-American bureaucratic dandy Mohamed ElBaradei as its figurehead -- would provide a kind of predictability. We could also have bloodshed without resolution.
Nobody knows how far the contagion could spread, how dire the consequences could be.For the Obama administration, the stakes are enormous. "Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as 'the president who lost Iran,'" writes Aluf Benn in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled."
Johns Hopkins' Joshua Muravchik, a brilliant champion for democracy promotion around the world, argues that an Islamicized Egypt would spell a generation of "civilizational" conflict with the Muslim Middle East.
A more prosaic concern for President Obama: The Suez Canal is the most direct conduit for oil from the Persian Gulf. If it closes, even briefly, oil prices could surge. Middle East instability could deal a staggering blow to a still weak American economy.
Meanwhile, the stakes for Israel are nearly existential. Already, Stratfor.com reports that Egyptian police no longer patrol the border with the Gaza Strip. No doubt Hamas is taking advantage. Now imagine the threat if the Muslim Brotherhood, which has sworn to tear up Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, came into power.
These are all valid reasons to watch the news from the Middle East with gritted teeth.
U.S. support of dictators is always shameful, even when it is occasionally necessary. But it is unforgivable when necessity gives way to mere complacency. We passed that point with Hosni Mubarak years ago. As Condoleezza Rice said, we traded freedom for stability in the Middle East and got neither. Now, the stability is collapsing, which at least makes freedom possible.
Unlike many pundits who've miraculously become Egyptologists overnight, I don't pretend to know what will happen next. But I do know that you can't get where we need to go without going through moments like this.
Moreover, it's worth noting that chaos cuts both ways. The Muslim Brotherhood sees this as its moment too. But that doesn't mean the path for it is clear. Many Egyptians joined the Brotherhood because it seemed like the only conduit for their justified hatred of Mubarak's regime. The days when the Brotherhood was the only game in town are over as well. Tomorrow remains a blank page. That alone is hopeful news.