How should the United States respond to the demonstrations against Egypt's president of three decades, Hosni Mubarak?
Scholars, experts and pundits disagree on what to do next, which group or leader to support. The fear is that the post-Mubarak regime could resemble Iran's Islamofascist "republic" after the fall of the Shah. No one really knows what will happen next.
The question is how -- or whether -- Islam can exist within an Egyptian government that is at peace with its neighbors and respects freedom, equal rights for women and religious minorities, and free market principles that build a prosperous society.
President George W. Bush and his supposedly disgraced "neocon" agenda argued that Islamofascism was a product of repressive Arab and Muslim governments and that our national security ultimately rests on the promotion and support of free, representational governments. He was right.
Bush knew that in a world of 1.2 billion Muslims, many believers of this so-called "religion of peace" support America's destruction and intend to work to achieve it. He also knew that we can't kill all Islamofascists. So terror-supporting governments must fall and be replaced by something akin to democracy -- based on the notion that free peoples tend not to invade each other.
Before going into Iraq, Bush delivered a speech in which he outlined the case for and the objectives of the Iraq War. "President Bush sketched an expansive vision last night of what he expects to accomplish by a war in Iraq," said the next day's New York Times editorial. "Instead of focusing on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, or reducing the threat of terror to the United States, Mr. Bush talked about establishing a 'free and peaceful Iraq' that would serve as a 'dramatic and inspiring example' to the entire Arab and Muslim world, provide a stabilizing influence in the Middle East and even help end the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Bush's then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, met with Princeton professor and Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, whom members of and advisers to the administration frequently cited for their war on terror strategy. Lewis wrote a short, profound book about the horrendous economic conditions and the stunted development in Arab and Muslim countries. He called the book "What Went Wrong?" Anti-Western hostility in the "Arab street," Lewis said, results from anger generated by their own governments' corruption and failed collectivist domestic policies, which cause high unemployment and widespread poverty. Egypt's per capita GDP in 2010 was $6,200, ranking it 137th out of 230 countries.
Rather than blame their own leaders, the "Arab street" seek scapegoats -- Israel, the United States, "degenerate" Western civilization, Christianity, the infidels. Islamic leaders of these countries enthusiastically encourage this victimhood, and they fund and control religious schools that spread it.
Lewis makes an argument that is simple, if complicated to implement. Only if and when these repressive governments fall, to be replaced by representational governments, will people realize that their "plight" is self-inflicted. Only then will radicals no longer have the base of support to threaten the West and Israel with state-sponsored homicide bombers. Freer governments in the Middle East, then, are vital to our national security.
Bush called this the "freedom agenda."
Detractors dismissed this as "imposing our values" on a culture that does not attach the same importance to, and indeed rejects, such Western principles as individual liberty, equal rights for women and religious minorities, transparency, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and separation of mosque and state.
Bush was denounced as a "neocon" -- used by detractors to mean an arrogant "cowboy" who knows nothing about Middle Eastern history and its culture, one that rejects such "alien" Western values.
Now we hear the same Bush-like "neocon" words from the Obama administration. And like Bush, Obama cannot know what happens next. It's a messy world, with no apparent Egyptian George Washington or Nelson Mandela.
Egypt's president might well be replaced by a regime that is even worse -- more hostile to Israel, the West and America. Since the Iraq War, however, in Middle Eastern countries where some semblance of free elections have been held (with the exception of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip), the Islamist extremist parties have been losing, not gaining, power.
Polls in Arab and Muslim countries show a dramatic fall in popular support of homicide bombings and for al-Qaida. On the other hand, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- which Israel fears may end up running Egypt -- adamantly opposes Egypt's treaty with Israel signed in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Indeed, Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of the military presumably affiliated with an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Will Egypt prove Bush and the neocons right -- that political freedom and peace are not incompatible in an Arab country in this tough neighborhood? Maybe -- via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- the young, hungry, restless, unemployed and social network-connected youth of Egypt have observed the nightmare regime that replaced the Shah of Iran and say, "Not us. Not here. Not now."