The fall of President Hosni Mubarak, greeted with jubilation in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, came after a wave of strikes this week demonstrated the depth and breadth of the Egyptian uprising. The numbers were so large - an estimated 200,000 took part - and the participants so wide-ranging - port workers, textile workers, postal workers, transport workers, farmers, the unemployed, journalists and more, from the Nile Delta to the Suez Canal, - that even the New York Times featured the story on its front page.
With developments in Egypt changing moment by moment, two things are clear: This is a revolution that will profoundly impact not only Egypt but the wider region as well. And it has forced the U.S. to a foreign policy crossroads, compelled to choose a path as the freight trains of history rush by at breakneck speed.
The Obama administration has shifted its response considerably since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ill-advised response on the first day of the uprising, Jan. 25, when she said that "the Egyptian government is stable."
During that first week, many complained that the White House was giving mixed messages, with Vice President Joe Biden saying of Mubarak, "I would not refer to him as a dictator," while President Obama was calling reform "absolutely critical for the long-term wellbeing of Egypt."
By the end of that week, the White House said the United States would review the $1.5 billion yearly aid it provides to Egypt (nearly all of it military aid), and Obama publicly expressed displeasure with Mubarak and said he had pressed the Egyptian ruler to make major reforms "to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people." After Mubarak reshuffled his government and named intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted that Mubarak "can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat." On Feb. 1, when Mubarak said he would not run for re-election in September, Obama took on a sharper tone, telling the Egyptian ruler that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."
The White House has maintained that position since, but it took no further public steps, despite many calls for it do so.
There were growing calls for the U.S. to cut off military aid to Egypt as a way to exert pressure for change. Now, with Egypt's military playing a leading role in the post-Mubarak period, such calls may subside. But they will undoubtedly rise again if real changes demanded by the Egyptian people don't happen immediately.
The announcement of Mubarak's departure said he was handing over power to the military. While rank and file soldiers come from the masses, the military elite has been characterized as an oligarchy. Suleiman's role remains unclear. U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks described Suleiman as Mubarak's "consigliere." As head of Egyptian intelligence since 1993, Suleiman directed the regime's apparatus of repression.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat who has emerged as a significant opposition leader, said Thursday it is the new forces, not the outgoing regime, who should be in charge of what happens next. "There is no credibility in either Mubarak or Suleiman or anybody who is associated with that regime," he said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
Egyptians are looking for substantive changes. Immediate demands are for a transitional national unity government that includes the movements that organized this revolution, and an interim constitution that guarantees human rights and a democratic process for September's presidential elections. The protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square are highly unlikely to accept a military dictatorship of any kind.
Beyond that, as this week's strikes indicate, they are looking for steps toward economic and social justice.
Commenting on the U.S. response, ElBaradei said, "Events have gone so fast, you know, nobody predicted. It's like the 1979 Iranian Revolution in that things took everybody by surprise, including us even. And they had to adjust their policy every half hour. As you remember, it started with Hillary Clinton saying ‘we assess that the government of Egypt is stable.' I took issue with that on CNN; I said she must have a different definition of stability than I do - stability meaning repression, poverty."
The U.S. will have to decide if it will continue to trumpet "stability" at the expense of the Egyptian people. Much to the surprise of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Egyptian people themselves have shown that this is no longer a viable policy.
Photo: Suez Canal Company workers rally as they began an open-ended strike in front of the company's headquarters in Ismailia City, Egypt, Wednesday, Feb. 9. Workers demanded the resignation of their immediate boss Admiral Ahmed Fadel, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority. They also demanded a pay increase and social equality. (AP Photo)