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Have Egypt's rulers thought about the isolation that awaits them?

Editorial cartoonists around the country react to the protests in Egypt.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011; 8:00 PM

One wonders whether Egypt's current rulers and military leaders have asked themselves, after they finish bloodying the opposition, what's next? What circumstances will they find themselves in? In control of Egypt, yes. But it will be a very different Egypt - a pariah state.

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For this much is certain: If Hosni Mubarak and his gang follow through with what is shaping up to be the 2011 Middle Eastern version of Tiananmen Square, not just the United States but most of the world will cut off and isolate them for as long as they remain in power.

Egypt is not China. It does not have a burgeoning economy with a billion people and a market that the world's business executives are desperate to exploit. It does not have enough oil, like Iran, to be sure of finding friends. Indeed, Egypt does not have enough of anything to make it vital to the world's economy. Perhaps Egypt's rulers delude themselves that the nation is strategically vital to the United States and the West and therefore can't be cut off for long. That could be a bad calculation. Will the United States and the West still regard Egypt as a strategic ally after the government's assault on its people foments ever greater radicalism within and beyond its borders? It could be that, by the time the Egyptian government finishes killing off its opponents, Egypt's strategic value will be greatly diminished.

Then comes life as a pariah. If Mubarak and his cronies want to know what that is going to be like, they can look to Pyongyang and Rangoon. (Not to Tehran, where the rulers have it comparatively easy because of the oil.) Their new circumstances will include diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions by the United States and the European Union, travel restrictions, banking restrictions - not to mention the end of billions in U.S. aid. Life will be more constrained. They may send their kids to schools abroad, but they won't be able to visit them. Those vacations on the Riviera? The trips to Davos? Forget it. If they have money, they'll have to move it around carefully to avoid the prying eyes of the U.S. Treasury. And every year they will have to fight to avoid human rights resolutions at international organizations. Maybe their fellow Arab leaders will stick up for them. But maybe not. With regimes in the region looking to buy off their own restive populations through reforms, it may not be popular to stick up for the brutes of Cairo.

At home, meanwhile, they will be the rulers of a shattered, poor, restive, radicalized society, perhaps requiring repeated violent crackdowns to keep opponents in check. The prisons will be filled with dissidents. Do they think they will be able to sleep safely atop a stable dictatorship? Or will they spend their days and nights in fear of coups and assassination?

Probably, Mubarak and his colleagues are not imagining this future. Either they aren't thinking that far ahead, caught up as they are in the struggle to hang on, or they may believe that the United States will, in the end, have no choice but to stick by them no matter what they do. (Some not-very-prescient types in the United States seem to imagine this, too.) The situation is confusing enough that they may not see the line they are about to step over: It is the subtle but unmistakable border that divides the troubled ally from the untouchable pariah. Someone, perhaps President Obama himself, should make sure they understand the significance of the step they are about to take.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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