Egypt is the largest nation in the Arab world and the fulcrum of American foreign policy among Arab nations. Its streets are ablaze with fires; its police have been withdrawn and replaced by the army; an attempt by President Hosni Mubarak to quell the rioters has only inflamed them further. The Obama administration is responding as if it is tiptoeing through a mine field. Those waiting for American leadership have to contend with the empty platitudes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is urging restraint on the Mubarak regime.
The scene is all too reminiscent of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Then, President Jimmy Carter not only demanded restraint but also had his administration work behind the scenes to bring down the shah. Carter believed he was watching a democratic revolution unfold, one led by Mehdi Bazargan, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Abulhassan Banisadr. Neither Carter nor his advisers understood that this democratic-centrist revolution, like those in Europe, would be short-lived. Bazargan resigned from the government over its authoritarian turn; Ghotbzadeh was shot by a firing squad; and Banisadr fled to France, where he currently lives under heavy police protection.
As someone who spent decades studying riots, revolutions, and other forms of civil violence, I have some advice for the administration:
Hillary Clinton might consider remaining silent for the duration of the event. One of the dramatic non-PC findings of the Kerner Commission Report on our own experiences with civil unrest is that even a legitimate government that hesitates in the face of riots will both inflame and contribute to the duration and intensity of violence. Riots end when there are swift, decisive, and appropriate responses to the violence. Riots persist when the police hesitate, when the police are restrained, and when the rioters feel they are in control.
Studies of revolution, including the Russian Revolution, show that the loyalty of several companies of armed, disciplined, and well-led soldiers willing to continually fire into the mobs would crush any revolution. Such an observation sounds barbaric until you consider the millions of lives that are needlessly wasted in a revolution and its aftermath. Imagine if the second Russian Revolution, the October Revolution, the one the Communists made, had been stopped in its tracks: no Lenin, no Civil War, no Stalin, no Gulags, no invasion of Poland, no totalitarian dictatorship. The taking of a few hundred or thousand lives in the streets of St. Petersburg would have saved the lives of countless millions.