Right now, things don't look so good in Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak refuses to step aside, and the conspiracy rumor mill is incensed that U.S. President Barack Obama, despite a clear speech calling for Egypt's transition to "begin now," seems to still back Mubarak's remaining in power until September.
But sooner or later, Mubarak will go -- and so too will Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who just announced that he won't see reelection either. If America's stalwart allies in waging the "war on terror," making peace with Israel, and keeping the flow of oil open are falling across the region, how can the United States possibly come out ahead in the Arab version of Eastern Europe's 1989?
The "Arab Spring" is as important as the fall of communism two decades ago. Then America was on the right side of history; now, it's not so clear. But in the Middle East, it's still not too late to get on it. For the past three decades, political inertia has gotten the better of diplomatic creativity in the Middle East. Washington has backed a host of autocrats in the name of stability. Successively corrupt regimes have presided over nothing but overpopulation, economic stagnation, and literally cutthroat politics. Never has a set of dominoes so deserved to fall.
Today, the Arab order that has stubbornly persisted since decolonization three generations ago appears to be finally crumbling, allowing its most populous country, Egypt, to wake up to the 21st century. Now the antiquated rules governing Western thinking about the Middle East -- stability over democracy and anything for Israel -- can be jettisoned as well.
People power is a lot more complicated than having one son of a bitch who answers the West's calls. But Egyptians aren't stupid, and even before the present crisis, notable figures ranging from feminist writer and physician Nawal El Saadawi to Mohamed ElBaradei have been potential candidates to lead the country. Like Tunisia, Egypt will quickly embrace better governance. Presidential or executive powers will be curtailed. Cronyism and clan-based dealings will be replaced by more technocratic leadership that will answer to the people as well as to global markets.
Egypt won't become a perfect democracy anytime soon, but it will likely have more accountability than it has seen in most of its population's living memory. Westerners don't need to worry about any new ideology triumphing the way Islamist theocracy emerged out of the chaos of Iran's 1979 revolution. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown in influence in Egypt, but not so much because of its religious preaching as its promotion of anti-corruption measures and its call for the repeal of Mubarak's draconian emergency laws. Even if it comes to power, in a democratic Egypt it could only stay if it practiced what it preached.
Egypt, the once proud anchor of the Arab world, has seen the spectacular success of Dubai and Doha and knows it must do better. Once the locus of the Middle East, it has been eclipsed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which have put their natural resources to work in ways Egypt has not done with its human resources. Across the region, the tired old Arabism of anti-colonial rhetoric and Sunni unity has failed -- replaced by a new Arabism led by Qatar's Al Jazeera, Lebanese bloggers, and Dubai investors. It is their entrepreneurship, know-how, and capital that are reshaping the vast young Arab generation's outlook on the world. This is the kind of fresh, youthful secular Arabism the West should get behind, liberating them from the squeeze between autocrats and would-be theocrats.
All this is good for the United States. Instead of prizing a false stability that inevitably culminates in chaos, as we most recently witnessed in Pakistan, the United States can ally with a young population that wants American companies to build factories, American consultants to reform their ministries and stock markets, and American universities to expand their campuses. Instead of Faustian bargains, there's no reason that Washington can't greet the dawning of the Arab Spring and normalize relations with the Egyptian people -- instead of their rulers.
A domino effect doesn't have to be a bad thing. Replacing autocracy with democracy and ideology with pragmatism would be a big step forward for much of the Arab world. And Washington would be wise to welcome this new era.