The last time I remember rioting in the streets in the Middle East, it was 1979 and the people of Iran overthrew the Shah. Islamic fundamentalists seized control, the US Embassy was seized and its staff taken hostage, and the world became a much more dangerous place. Could the same thing happen in Egypt? CNN reports that the current protests are the doings of young people who are well-educated but unemployed or underemployed in Egypt’s stagnant, oil-less economy. That may well be true, but overthrowing a 30-year regime is inherently unstable and the fundamentalists have always been quick to exploit opportunities, so the situation is precarious.
The one cause for hope is the Egyptian Army. While the police appear to be universally despised by their countrymen, the soldiers seem to be held in high esteem and many reports from Egypt describe soldiers and protesters acting harmoniously in contrast to the violence directed at the police who have mostly disappeared. And the Egyptian Army has long had very close ties to the US military; much of its officer corps has received advanced training in America and US Army units often deploy to Egypt for joint exercises. The Egyptian Army Chief of Staff, in fact, had to race back to his country from Washington this week where he was engaged in high level meetings with US commanders. Hopefully a coalition of civilian reformers and the military will guide the country through this turmoil and keep the fundamentalists out of power.