Egyptian Wael Ghonim, center, the Google
marketing manager and a key organizer of
the online campaign that sparked the first
protest on Jan. 25, talks to the crowd in Tahrir
Square in Cairo on Tuesday.
After a good start, the Obama administration's response to the democratic revolution in Egypt has begun to exude the odor of betrayal. Now distancing itself from the essential demand of the protesters that the dictator must go, the administration has fallen back on the sordid option of backing a new and improved dictatorship. Predictably, it is one guided by a local strongman long entrusted by the CIA, Vice President Omar Suleiman, described by U.S. officials in the WikiLeaks cables as a "Mubarak consigliere." The script is out of an all-too-familiar playbook: Pick this longtime chief of Egyptian intelligence who has consistently done our bidding in matters of torture and retrofit him as a modern democratic leader. But this time the Egyptian street will not meekly go along.
The first test was on Tuesday, after the weekend theatrics of Suleiman making a show of meeting with the opposition but rejecting its demands. A huge crowd -- inspired by a most modern protest figure, a Google executive -- showed up to reject defeat as a compromise. Defeat, because under Suleiman's plan all of the levers of oppressive power would remain, including Hosni Mubarak as president and a state of emergency denying fundamental freedoms that dates back four decades. Conning the masses with fears of a foreign enemy is a political art form in Egypt going back to the pharaohs, but this time, perhaps thanks to new empowering technology, or just too much suffering, it is not working.
The scenes of the demonstrators in recent weeks have in some ways been reminiscent of those I witnessed in Cairo back in 1967, but their significance is exactly the opposite. Back then, when huge crowds took to the streets their anger got perversely twisted by nationalist rage into the demand that Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had presided over a humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War, not make good on his threat to resign. The failure of the Egyptian street to hold Nasser accountable for the stark failures of his dictatorship ushered in a 44-year reign of tyranny, corruption and stagnation at the heart of the Arab world.