This has little to do with Islamists, or with Washington
On Saturday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked a guest on his show how al Qa'eda fitted into events in Egypt. The question itself was reminiscent of Larry King a few years back asking Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to explain yoga.
Mr Blitzer's vigilance against Qa'eda bogeymen lurking in Egypt's democracy protests epitomises the US habit of seeing Egypt only through the prism of Washington's regional agenda.
US officials forced to explain their support for Hosni Mubarak's repressive autocracy over the past week have stressed Mr Mubarak's cooperation with Israel and support for a US regional strategy highly unpopular with the citizenry of the Arab world. As the State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley, told Al Jazeera: "Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East ... It's made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that's ... a model that the region should adopt."
The fact that Mr Mubarak has been kept in power for three decades by a police state that tortures opponents and runs sham elections is collateral unpleasantness that Washington would rather not discuss. In fact, it has been happy to outsource the torture of terror suspects to Mr Mubarak's security services under the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme. Fearing that democracy in Egypt would empower the Muslim Brotherhood, the US has lobbied for Mubarak-initiated reforms.
But paranoia over Islamist participation restrains US support for Arab democracy, which in most countries would include Islamist parties. Washington's experience working with Islamist-led governments has added to this fear: when Palestinian elections were won by Hamas in 2006, Washington abandoned its call for Palestinian democracy and forcefully advocated authoritarianism instead.
Mr Mubarak played on Washington's fears to scale back democratic efforts during the George W Bush years. He allowed the group's candidates limited participation in the 2005 election, yielding 20 per cent control of the legislature to them. The message to Washington was clear: imagine what would happen in a truly free and fair election.
Mr Mubarak knows the Americans don't like his methods, but he wants them to believe he's all that stands between them and an Iranian-style regime in Egypt. This taps into a longstanding US foreign policy tradition encapsulated by President Franklin D Roosevelt's comment about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza Garcia: "He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch." The land of the free has often been willing to back tyrants abroad to protect its own interests.
But events over the past week have seen ordinary Egyptians taking to the streets in the hopes of ousting a regime that offers them neither dignity nor hope; US and Israeli interests have not factored into their decision to overthrow a regime that has mired them in despair. Nor do they share Washington's fear over the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long suffered under Mr Mubarak's tyranny.
The unrest is a product of economic, demographic and technological changes: Egypt's GDP might be growing at 5 per cent per annum, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Close to half the population live on less than $2 a day, and one third is illiterate. Two thirds of the population is aged under 30. Unemployment is significantly higher than the official 10 per cent, and Egypt has few jobs to offer those that it educates. Rising food prices are also raising the level of desperation among the poor.
In any society, these social indicators combined with the absence of real democratic outlets are a combustible mix. Economic despair may have been the fuel, but its ignition required other factors: the regime's loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its people, its lack of a national narrative, and its inability to control and limit the information available to them. Images of Tunisia via the internet and cable TV lit the spark by giving young people the confidence to act, and their protests unleashed a nationwide rebellion.
The fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 has taught the US that friendly autocrats can be toppled if they fail to defuse popular pressure by enacting reforms. Washington has been urging reforms on Mr Mubarak for years, but he has ignored them to the point that it may be too late.
The situation is fluid and dangerous now. It's unclear whether the appointment of the intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman as vice president signals the onset of Mr Mubarak's replacement by a military transitional government that negotiates a democratic transition with opposition groups, or whether Mr Mubarak will ride out the crisis. The military's intentions are unclear, and opposition groups won't accept Mr Mubarak's reign.
Washington has long expected that Mr Mubarak's successor would not be as pliant. A May 2007 cable from the US embassy in Cairo released last year by WikiLeaks warned that: "Whoever Egypt's next president is, he will inevitably be politically weaker than Mubarak, and ... among his first priorities will be to cement his position and build popular support."
The cable continued: "We can thus anticipate that the new president may sound an initial anti-American tone in his public rhetoric in an effort to prove his nationalist bona fides to the Egyptian street, and distance himself from Mubarak's policies ... We can also expect the new president to extend an olive branch to the Muslim Brotherhood ... in an effort to co-opt potential opposition and boost popularity."
And all this was before the people of Egypt had stepped up to demand a say in the matter. Except their message to America may be am even simpler one: this is not about you.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron
Updated: January 31, 2011 04:00 AM