By Director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings
COMMENTARY

Editor's Note: Martin Indyk is the director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings and will be appearing on a special edition of NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, January 30, 2011.

Events in the streets of Cairo and Egypt's other cities are unfolding at a dizzying pace as the Egyptian people demand an end to the 30 year reign of Hosni Mubarak.  In the past four days, the much-feared security police have lost control of the streets, the Egyptian army has entered the main squares but is embracing rather than shooting the demonstrators, President Mubarak has dismissed his government, and -- for the first time in his very long reign -- has now appointed a successor (that is not his son).  None of this was even imaginable a week ago.  And it all has profound significance for American interests in the Middle East.

Since the Nixon-Kissinger era, Egypt has served as the strategic cornerstone of U.S. policy in this volatile region.  As the largest, militarily most powerful, and culturally most influential country in the Arab world, Egypt has disproportionate influence on the course of events there.  And the Egyptian-U.S. alliance has been fundamentally important both to war and peace in the Middle East.

The peace between Egypt and Israel, forged in the 1970s by Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat, with the active involvement of the United States, has made it impossible for other Arab states to consider going to war with Israel.  With Egypt out of the picture, they have all now come to the point where they are willing to end the conflict with Israel.  Similarly, the wars the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been made possible by the flow of forces and materiel through Egypt's Suez Canal and Cairo West air base.  And Egypt's support for U.S. endeavors in both arenas has been critically important in ensuring broader Arab support.

Put simply, all of our interests in the Middle East — from promoting stability, to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, to ensuring the free-flow of oil at reasonable prices, to containing the influence of Iran and its radical Hamas and Hezbollah proxies — all of them will be much harder, if not impossible, to protect, if we lose Egypt.

But here's the horrible dilemma that President Obama now finds himself in.  If he distances the United States from Mubarak, he risks toppling a critically important Arab ally which could generate a tsunami of instability that could shake the foundations of all of America's autocratic Arab allies across the region.  Yet if he does not distance the U.S. from the Egyptian pharaoh, he risks alienating the Egyptian people, helping to open the way to a theocratic regime that would be fundamentally anti-American.

Fortunately, we know the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, because we have been living with them ever since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and his replacement by the anti-American ayatollahs. The Shah, like Mubarak, represented a strategic pillar, protecting U.S. interests in the critically important Persian Gulf.  Jimmy Carter pressed the Shah to undertake political reforms and respect the human rights of his people, but then backed off for the sake of stability.  Similarly, George W. Bush pressed Mubarak to open up political space for a moderate Egyptian opposition to emerge and then backed off after Hamas won the Palestinian elections.

At this point, facing by far the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency, Obama cannot afford to backtrack. Yesterday, he came out publicly on the side of the Egyptian people, insisting that Mubarak undertake significant reforms.  But it is surely clear by now that the people will settle for nothing less than the removal of Mubarak.  So Obama's options are narrowing.  He will soon have to decide whether to tell Mubarak that the United States no longer supports him and that it's time for him to go. 

Fortunately, Mubarak's appointment of Omar Suleiman, the head of Military Intelligence,  as his vice president and successor, has made it more possible for Obama to pursue this option with less fear of the potential destabilizing consequences.  The United States has a good deal of leverage on the Egyptian military because we have trained, equipped and paid for their armaments. They now hold the key to a positive resolution of this crisis.  Mubarak may have appointed Suleiman to shore up military support for his presidency, but he is now dependent on the same military for his survival and they may be willing to abandon him to ensure their own. 

That's the door on which Obama now needs to push. Suleiman needs to be encouraged to take over as Egypt's new president, order the military to prevent looting but not harm the demonstrators, and announce that he will only serve for six months until free and fair elections allow for a legitimate president to form a new government.  If he can put this understanding in place, Obama then needs to call Mubarak and tell him gently but firmly that for the good of his country it's time for him to go.

Video: Indyk on Mideast protests: Egypt at the ‘epicenter’

  1. Transcript of: Indyk on Mideast protests: Egypt at the ‘epicenter’

    MR. GREGORY: We are back, and we're going to get to our political roundtable in just a minute, but first some additional perspective and analysis on the situation in Egypt . I'm going to talk to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in just a moment, but with me here now Martin Indyk , the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton , also Mideast negotiator, and currently the foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution . Martin , good to have you here.

    MR. MARTIN INDYK: Thank you, David .

    MR. GREGORY: Here is the map of the flash points here. It beings with Tunisia , January 14th , in Lebanon , but Egypt on Tuesday. Why is this so important? Why is this such a big story ?

    MR. INDYK: Well, you can see on the map, David , that, that Egypt is at, at the epicenter. But it's not just geostrategically central, it's the largest militarily most powerful, by far the most influential Arab country. And where Egypt goes will have a tsunami effect on the rest of the region. So it may start in Tunisia and Lebanon , Yemen .

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. INDYK: But if it ends up in Egypt , this is very profound. And because American interests are, are so tied up with Egypt , what happens there will have a profound effect on our interests.

    MR. GREGORY: We were talking about Secretary Clinton . You heard her remarks. History matters here. You go back to 1979 and what was happening on the streets of Tehran , but the protests, the Khomeini -led revolution, and at the same time the support of the shah of Iran . You remember these scenes. Why is that an example that the administration is thinking a lot about today?

    MR. INDYK: Well, because Iran was our strategic pillar in the Persian Gulf , oil rich. Egypt is our strategic pillar in the heartland of the Middle East , in the Arab-Israeli arena. And so demonstrations there that overthrew the shah and demonstrations here that are in the process of overthrowing Hosni Mubarak have a resonance. We do not want to be on the wrong side of history like we were with the shah. And yet we have to walk a very fine line because so many of our interests are tied up with this leadership in Egypt .

    MR. GREGORY: We talk about how viral this has been, how quickly this is moving. This is TweetDeck . This is real-time view of all of the Egypt related tweets. If we're searching for Cairo or Mubarak or protests or Egypt , this is a conversation that's going on in real time . The administration has to catch up. In, in the foreign policy circles you talk about contagion. Why is this aspect of it so important for the region?

    MR. INDYK: You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution. Mubarak was focused on suppressing the moderate secular center in Egypt because that's what he feared most, and the Muslim brotherhood was able to organize and have an infrastructure. These guys didn't have anything until Twitter and Facebook came along. And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.

    MR. GREGORY: We talk about Hosni Mubarak as we look at the region. But you look at kind of the biography of Hosni Mubarak , he comes in in '81 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat , fifth consecutive term. He's survived at least six assassination attempts. He's a survivor. Are his days running out?

    MR. INDYK: Look, he's, he's 80 years old. He's, he's a sick and old man. The compact with his people has been broken. It cannot be put together again. Unfortunately, because he's been a good friend of the United States . But he did not open his political space. He did not allow for the people to express themselves, and now he's reaping the consequences. And there's basically nothing that he or we can do about it.

    MR. GREGORY: Does this put the pause button on Arab-Israeli peace for now?

    MR. INDYK: I think so. I think that this is such a big deal that it could have profound consequences...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. INDYK: ...for the peace treaty and the whole process of reconciliation between Israel and the Arabs if this results in a radical regime taking over in Egypt . The military is critically important now in Egypt . You can see them in the streets now maintaining order but embracing the demonstrations. Now there's a head of the military who's, who's been put in place as vice president. They're the ones who have to hold the ring now, tell Mubarak to go, and announce that there will be presidential elections within, I think, six months, that Suleiman , the vice president now, will not stand, but that the military will oversee a, a process of democratic evolution.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Martin , thank you so much . You can also visit our Web site for an exclusive op-ed by Martin about the way forward in Egypt . It's on our Web site , mtp.msnbc.com, as well as of our coverage. Martin , thank you. I also had the opportunity to speak to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman last night before he left the World Economic Forum in Davos . I began by asking him how we got to this moment.

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
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  3. Image: Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters
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  4. Image: Mohamed ElBaradei
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  5. Image:
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  6. Egyptian Bloggers
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