Wither Egypt

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My colleague Massimo is right, for once. Things have slowed down dramatically in Egypt in recent days. But folks I have been talking to aren’t convinced this is necessarily a good thing, or in the U.S.’s long-term interests. Here’s Washington’s pickle: now that the protesters — and the international community, led by Washington — have convinced Hosni Mubarak it’s nearly time to leave, they’ve displeased both sides. Mubarak is ticked because he’s being forced out by a putative ally. The opposition is upset because it’s not happening immediately.

Things in Tahrir Square have become so quiet, so quickly, it makes some U.S. officials wonder just how much support the protesters really have. Last week at this time Mubarak’s ouster, bloody or otherwise, felt imminent. But now the supposed revolution has been put on hold, slated to cool its heels while meetings between the government and its foes drone on. Last week there was a sense that the people really want change to come to Egypt; this week it seems some people want change, but most simply want bread.

What’s interesting about what is unfolding in Egypt is the rise of a seemingly politically-savvy, technologically-adept cohort of young adults in their 20s and 30s. Their Internet literacy has shown them there is another way to live other than under a despot’s thumb. They don’t seem to be embracing radical Islam as a route to their future, which is reassuring. “In the end, the greatest threat to [Osama] Bin Laden and his allies will come from a stable, democratic Egypt that offers its citizens and other Muslims proof that peaceful political activity, not jihad, is how they can better their lives,” Daniel Byman writes in Slate.

Instead of joining in full-throated support of the protesters, the Obama Administration has helped take the wind out of their sails. That may be smart if, as some in the U.S. military believe, the great bulk of the Egyptian population is apolitical and only wants a job that can put food on the table. In which case, good move. But if the flames of democracy we saw last week flicker into embers as the fire is banked, to the detriment of nascent Egypt’s democrats — and to the benefit of Osama — maybe not so much.