Things are about to go from bad to worse in the Middle East. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is nowhere in sight. Lebanon just became a Hezbollah state, which is to say that Iran has become an even more important regional power, and Egypt, once stable if tenuously so, has been pitched into chaos. This is the most dire prospect of them all. The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.
Egypt's problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant and a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality. It also lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government - or the one after - might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.
My take on all this is relentlessly gloomy. I care about Israel. I care about Egypt, too, but its survival is hardly at stake. I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.
It's impossible now to get a fix on what is happening in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be lying low. Is this a reflection of weakness or canniness? The Brotherhood remains the only well-organized institution in Egypt other than the military. It has been underground for generations - jailed, tortured, infiltrated, but still, somehow, flourishing. Its moment may be approaching.
Under a different name (Hamas), the Muslim Brotherhood runs the Gaza Strip. Hamas's charter states unequivocally that it wants to eradicate Israel. It mentions the 1978 Camp David accords, and not with admiration. ("Egypt was, to a great extent, removed from the circle of the struggle through the treacherous Camp David Agreement.") No doubt that in an Egyptian election, the call to repudiate the treaty will prove popular - as popular as the peace with Israel has not been.
The Muslim Brotherhood's most influential thinker was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He was hanged in 1966, but not before he had managed to turn out a vast amount of writings. He showed almost superhuman courage and was, in many respects, a formidable man. But he was also a racist, a bigot, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a fervent hater of most things American. As if to prove that familiarity breeds contempt, he had spent about two years in the United States.
The Egyptian crisis has produced the usual blather about the role of America. The United States remains powerful and important, but it has already lost control of events - not that it ever really had it. Moreover, it hardly matters what Washington now says. The Islamists of the Brotherhood do not despise America for what it does but for what it is. Read Qutb's purplish alarm at the dress and appearance of American women. Read his racist remarks about blacks. The Islamic state Qutb envisioned would be racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian as well. It would treat women as the Taliban now does - if only because the Taliban, too, reveres Qutb. He rejected a clemency offer, saying his words would matter more if he was dead. He was right.
Majority rule is a worthwhile idea. But so, too, are respect for minorities, freedom of religion, the equality of women and adherence to treaties, such as the one with Israel, the only democracy in the region. It's possible that the contemporary Islamists of Egypt think differently about these matters than did Qutb. If that's the case, then there is no cause for concern. But Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although recently moderating its message, suggests otherwise. So does Iran.
Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Hosni Mubarak is history. He has stayed too long, been too recalcitrant - and, for good reason, let his fear of the future ossify the present. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.