What Egypt needs now, before anything else, is free parliamentary elections that can help capitalize on the momentum in Tahrir Square and give the opposition a position from which it can dictate the pace of reform. This is not something the Egyptian regime wants.
Instead, Vice President Omar Suleiman would love to sit down with a wide spectrum of opposition groups — some meaningful, many regime puppets — and preside over negotiations for a new Egyptian constitution. He'll make sure the talks aren't just about those bits relating to the power of the president or the ability of the police to have their way with citizens.
Instead, he will exploit the deep disagreement among the opposition over such issues as whether Islam should be the religion of the state or whether the economy should be based on socialist principles. It's a recipe for endless jawboning, while the military consolidates its hold.
The United States seems to be comfortable with such an outcome. The reluctance with which the Obama administration has approached the prospect of Egyptian democracy might be ascribed to a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly airs her worry that the Brotherhood — she never mentions it by name, but the implication is clear — will hijack the democratic process. But by now she must know that the Brotherhood is in no position to inherit a post-Mubarak order.
Egyptians say the group represents 20% to 30% of society. But even if it is more popular than that, its decision not to try to contest the upcoming presidential elections or to seek positions in any interim government should put to rest any fears of an impending Islamist dominion. Besides, by meeting with Suleiman, the movement may have reduced its credibility with the street, making an Islamic sweep even more unlikely.
Could it be that the U.S. doesn't trust others in the opposition movement? Although Mohamed ElBaradei's 10-member committee, formed by a "shadow legislature" to negotiate the terms of surrender with President Hosni Mubarak's government, looks increasingly unlikely to achieve anything, analysts at the State Department have probably examined its makeup and found it hair-raising.
For every liberal on the committee such as Ayman Nour (who ran against Mubarak in 2005) or Osama Ghazali Harb (founder of a liberal political party), there is someone like Magdy Hussein, editor of the online newspaper Al Shaab and president of the now-defunct Labor Party. Hussein, a socialist-Islamist-nationalist, is serving a two-year prison sentence — handed down by a military tribunal — for sneaking into the Gaza Strip in early 2009 to show support for its people during Israel's military operations there.
Then there's Abdel-Halim Qandil, a pan-Arabist in the mold of Egypt's second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser — arguably the man whose legacy of authoritarianism today's protesters are trying desperately to undo. Qandil is one of the leaders of the anti-Mubarak Kifaya (Enough) movement. "Egypt falls under American hegemony and Israeli occupation and the regime is loyal to them," he declared recently. "Therefore, opposition toward Israel and America is a cornerstone of Kifaya's program."
Hamdin Sabahi, another member of the committee and the leader of an Arab nationalist party called Karama (Dignity), offered an echo of this sentiment shortly before the protests began: "People are unhappy. They want better living conditions. They want to say 'no' to the U.S. and Israel."
The natural reaction of people who know Egypt would be to respond that these men's views don't represent Egyptian society or that they wouldn't sweep elections. And there is evidence for these claims. The parties that Hussein, Qandil and Sabahi represent have never done terribly well in elections (although, of course, those elections have always been rigged).
The Egyptian population's views are indeterminate — one poll conducted by Pew says that 82% of Egyptians dislike America, whereas a BBC poll puts the figure closer to 29%. And the protesters — represented by the inspiring figure of Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was released Monday after being detained by the government for 12 days — are young, open and dynamic, and singularly uninterested in reenacting the failed ideologies of the 20th century.
But let's assume that Egypt is unreflectively anti-American and that the Husseins and Qandils and Sabahis of the world — or, gasp, the Muslim Brotherhood — fully represent the people camping in Tahrir Square. Should it matter? U.S. commitment to democracy can't be based on whether it will bring to power those we like. Otherwise, it's not a commitment to democracy but its exact opposite.
In this, we could take a lesson from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nasserists who have paid high prices — prison sentences, beatings and regime harassment — to bring to their country a democracy that offers none of them any personal guarantees of power or influence.
Besides, if the United States does not support the people's call for democracy, it's likely that those who want to "say no" to the U.S. will swell. Egyptian democrats have always felt that the United States was to blame for the dictatorship that dominated them. In the past, this was largely an unfair charge: We dealt with the regime we found. But if the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people are thwarted now, the charge will be much harder to shake.
Critics might argue that an unruly democracy in Egypt would raise the costs of defending our interests in the region, making the $1.5 billion a year in aid that we paid Mubarak's regime look like a bargain. We've never faced an Egypt that says no to us, and adjusting to one would no doubt be difficult and unpleasant.
But it will also be necessary. Autocrats rule by stifling competition and distorting their countries' political markets, and in politics as in economics, you meddle in the market at your own peril. By suppressing Islamists and leftists and secularists, Mubarak stunted their evolution, in effect freezing them in amber to await the burst of popular rage that would let them loose on the world.
We should be grateful that Egypt's long-suffering ideologues want to use this moment of freedom not to bring fire and brimstone but to demand fair elections. Unless we want to find ourselves in 10 or 20 years worrying about anti-American zealots violently seizing the government of a once-staunch ally, President Obama should help make sure these opposition figures get what they're asking for.
Tarek Masoud is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.