A specter is haunting the West. In 1979, the United States watched a street revolution in the Middle East and saw its stalwart ally, Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi, ousted, only to be replaced by a theocratic Islamic Republic. Now, watching another street revolution in another Middle Eastern country, many people seem spooked by this memory. Fears of an Islamic takeover are not limited to Glenn Beck, with his predictions that the fall of Hosni Mubarak will lead to the rise of an Islamic caliphate bent on global domination. (Beck's policy recommendation to Americans was even more out there: "store food.") Serious conservative politicians such as Mitt Romney and John McCain describe Egypt's Islamic opposition in terms not so dissimilar from Beck's. On the left, The Post's Richard Cohen writes, "The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare." Leon Wieseltier believes the Islamists will attempt a Bolshevik-style takeover.
All these things may indeed come to pass, but there is little evidence so far to support the scare scenarios. The Egyptian protests have been secular; the Muslim Brotherhood is one of many groups participating, all of whom have demands that are about democracy and human rights. Egypt is not Iran in a dozen important ways. Its Sunni clergy play no hierarchical or political role the way they do in Iran. Perhaps most important, the current Iranian regime is not a popular model in the Arab world. Egyptians have seen Mubarak and the mullahs and want neither - Pew polling in 2010 found that a large majority supports democratic governance.
Fears of this imagined future are drawing American eyes away from the actual problem in Egypt: military dictatorship. Egypt is not a personality-based regime, centered on Mubarak, despite reports of his wealth and efforts to establish his son as his successor. Since the officers' coup in 1952, Egypt has been a dictatorship of, by and for the military. The few presidents since then have emerged from the officer corps; the armed forces have huge budgets and total independence, and are deeply involved in every aspect of society, including owning vast tracts of land and hundreds of companies.
Right now, the military is consolidating its power. Mubarak's efforts since 2004 to bring civilians and business leaders into the cabinet have been reversed over the past week - in fact, the businessmen have been turned into scapegoats, sacrificed so that the generals can continue to rule. The three people running Egypt - the vice president, prime minister and defense chief - come from the army. Half of the cabinet are military men, and about 80 percent of the powerful governors are drawn from the armed forces. The military seems to have decided to sacrifice Mubarak but is trying to manage the process of change, to ensure that it remains all-powerful. Egypt, remember, is still ruled by martial law and military courts.
Many commentators have made parallels to Turkey, where the military played a crucial role in modernizing the country. But the military in Turkey has yielded power very reluctantly, and only because the European Union has persistently applied pressure to weaken the military's role in politics. The danger is that Egypt will become not Turkey but Pakistan, a sham democracy with real power held in back rooms by generals.
The Obama administration is right to work to produce a smooth transition. The danger of chaos is real: The views of the Muslim Brotherhood are retrograde and pernicious. Without a new constitution and legal protections there are risks of "illiberal democracy," or free and fair elections under Egypt's current laws that would lead to bad outcomes for minorities, human rights and other freedoms. The transition should be not just from Mubarak but from the whole system he headed.
It's worth remembering what has led to the rise of Islamic extremism and anti-American rage in the Middle East. Arabs see Washington as having supported brutal dictatorships that suppress their people. They believe that it ignored this suppression as long as the regimes toed the line on American foreign policy. If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo. Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious and more violent. That might be the real parallel to the forces that led to the Iranian revolution.