Who doesn't love a democratic revolution? Who is not moved by the renunciation of fear and the reclamation of dignity in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria?
The worldwide euphoria that has greeted the Egyptian uprising is understandable. All revolutions are blissful in the first days. The romance could be forgiven if this were Paris 1789. But it is not. In the intervening 222 years, we have learned how these things can end.
The Egyptian awakening carries promise and hope and of course merits our support. But only a child can believe that a democratic outcome is inevitable. And only a blinkered optimist can believe that it is even the most likely outcome.
Yes, the Egyptian revolution is broad-based. But so were the French and the Russian and the Iranian revolutions. Indeed in Iran, the revolution only succeeded - the shah was long opposed by the mullahs - when the merchants, the housewives, the students and the secularists joined to bring him down.
And who ended up in control? The most disciplined, ruthless and ideologically committed - the radical Islamists.
This is why our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time. That would be Egypt's fate should the Muslim Brotherhood prevail. That was the fate of Gaza, now under the brutal thumb of Hamas, a Palestinian wing (see Article 2 of Hamas's founding covenant) of the Muslim Brotherhood.
We are told by sage Western analysts not to worry about the Brotherhood because it probably commands only about 30 percent of the vote. This is reassurance? In a country where the secular democratic opposition is weak and fractured after decades of persecution, any Islamist party commanding a third of the vote rules the country.
Elections will be held. The primary U.S. objective is to guide a transition period that gives secular democrats a chance.
The House of Mubarak is no more. He is 82, reviled and not running for reelection. The only question is who fills the vacuum. There are two principal possibilities: a provisional government of opposition forces, possibly led by Mohamed ElBaradei, or an interim government led by the military.
ElBaradei would be a disaster. As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he did more than anyone to make an Iranian nuclear bomb possible, covering for the mullahs for years. (As soon as he left, the IAEA issued a strikingly tough, unvarnished report about the program.)
Worse, ElBaradei has allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood. Such an alliance is grossly unequal. The Brotherhood has organization, discipline and widespread support. In 2005, it won approximately 20 percent of parliamentary seats. ElBaradei has no constituency of his own, no political base, no political history within Egypt at all.
He has lived abroad for decades. He has less of a residency claim to Egypt than Rahm Emanuel has to Chicago. A man with no constituency allied with a highly organized and powerful political party is nothing but a mouthpiece and a figurehead, a useful idiot whom the Brotherhood will dispense with when it ceases to have need of a cosmopolitan frontman.
The Egyptian military, on the other hand, is the most stable and important institution in the country. It is Western-oriented and rightly suspicious of the Brotherhood. And it is widely respected, carrying the prestige of the 1952 Free Officers Movement that overthrew the monarchy and the 1973 October War that restored Egyptian pride along with the Sinai.
The military is the best vehicle for guiding the country to free elections over the coming months. Whether it does so with Mubarak at the top, or with Vice President Omar Suleiman or perhaps with some technocrat who arouses no ire among the demonstrators, matters not to us. If the army calculates that sacrificing Mubarak (through exile) will satisfy the opposition and end the unrest, so be it.
The overriding objective is a period of stability during which secularists and other democratic elements of civil society can organize themselves for the coming elections and prevail. ElBaradei is a menace. Mubarak will be gone one way or the other. The key is the military. The United States should say very little in public and do everything behind the scenes to help the military midwife - and then guarantee - what is still something of a long shot: Egyptian democracy.