Egypt's unstable regime
TENS OF thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and other cities Tuesday in an unprecedented outburst of protest against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Inspired by Tunisia's popular uprising, they demanded political concessions that Mr. Mubarak's rotting government should have made long ago: an end to emergency laws, freedom for political activity and a limit on the president's tenure in office. The United States has said that it favors such reforms. But when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked about the demonstrations, she foolishly threw the administration's weight behind the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak.
"Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," Ms. Clinton said.
The secretary's words suggested that the administration remains dangerously behind the pace of events in the Middle East. It failed to anticipate Tunisia's revolution; days before President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was driven from the country Ms. Clinton said the United States was "not taking sides" between the dictator and his protesting people. Last week President Obama called Mr. Mubarak but said nothing about the political situation in Egypt - including the regime's plan to hold a one-sided presidential "election" this fall that would extend Mr. Mubarak's mandate for another six years.
Tuesday's events suggested that the Cairo government is not at all stable. Three people were killed in the occasionally violent demonstrations, and thousands of protesters remained camped in Cairo's central Tahrir Square overnight. They will not be easily satisfied - because Mr. Mubarak in fact is not trying to "respond to legitimate needs and interests." Instead the government is seeking to perpetuate itself in power by force, and pave the way for an eventual dynastic succession to power by Mr. Mubarak's son.
Egypt has been a vital ally of the United States, and a potential change of regime there is frightening to many in Washington, especially given the strength of the country's Islamist movement. Those concerns are legitimate. But blind U.S. backing for Mr. Mubarak makes a political disaster in Egypt more rather than less likely. Instead of stressing the government's stability, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama need to begin talking about how it must change.