NEW YORK — Erosion, at the end of the day, is the rule of the desert.
Mountains of sand shift with the winds, pyramids crumble and the face of the Sphinx wears slowly away. Now, in Cairo, something similar appears to be happening to that monument of American diplomacy: the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
Now that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has made it clear that he won't resign, and the country braces for its largest protests yet, the United States will have to decide whether or not to finally break with its one-time key ally in the region.
Either way, Mubarak handed over all but three key powers Thursday to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, putting in question the extent to which Egypt will continue to play a “moderating force” in the Middle East.
Mubarak's control over the country seems tenuous at best. The most likely outcome at this stage is that Mubarak's regime will ultimately hand over power to an interim military government.
Should the interim government take hold, a period of calm before elections could give opposition parties time to organize and form alliances — making the formation of a stable democratic government more likely.
On the downside, lingering resentment could lead to more violent protests if the transition isn’t seen as genuine or if election and reform pledges slip.
Major questions will confront both the opposition and the interim authorities. For instance, will parliament — elected under the rigged system of the Mubarak years — take part in the writing of a new Egyptian constitution? Will a new constitution precede new elections? How hard will Mubarak’s loyalists, who control much of the economy, work to undermine the process?
On the foreign policy front, of course, the successful overthrow of the Egyptian government will have enormous consequences for stability in the Middle East and for U.S. influence.
The transition in Cairo is in its early stages and the events to come are uncertain at best. But some things can be gleaned from the events of the past three weeks.
The United States, at least in the short-term, has lost influence in the most important Arab country.
Once a new government is seated, its natural desire — given anti-U.S. resentment in Egypt — will be to immediately demonstrate independence from Washington.
This isn’t likely to take the form of renouncing the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel or even cutting off the flow of Egyptian natural gas to Israel — an economic tie that began in 2005 and has brought much needed hard currency into the Egyptian economy.
Instead, what will probably happen is that the new government will open its border with Gaza and lift the embargo against the Hamas-led government there, an embargo wildly unpopular in Egypt. Egypt also may emerge as a more potent force in pressuring Israel to get serious about negotiations with the Palestinians.
In the longer term, the ability of the United States to sustain a status quo in the Middle East that is at odds with the majority opinion is diminishing. This is only the first of many shoes that will drop.
This is a lesson for Israel: peace with the Palestinians should be a goal while Israel remains a relative power in the region. Events like this can unfold very quickly. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and by 1992 the Soviet Union had followed. There is no direct analogy here, of course, but the quickness with which things that seemed written in stone can be eroded by political passions should not be ignored.
Ultimately, for Israel, demographics and the march of technology, plus America’s diminished ability to provide security, will make negotiations far less advantageous in the future.
The Obama administration has done well backing away from Mubarak. But, even if Mubarak does eventually step down, the United States will have amends to make, too.
While the United States regularly complained to Egypt about the trouble it was causing by repressing citizens' rights, it is also true that the 1979 peace deal made Egypt feel invulnerable and stiffened Mubarak’s resistance to reform.
Furthermore, the United States allegedly used Mubarak’s secret police to torture suspected Al Qaeda members through “extraordinary rendition.” This is officially denied, but widely known in Egypt and beyond.
Saving Camp David certainly warrants enormous efforts. But from an Egyptian’s standpoint, the good done for the stability of the region has failed to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine, and failed to transform Egyptian society into the democracy the United States has repeatedly said it wished for.
And yet Camp David was a good deal for Egypt, too. The accords relieved the primary military threat to Egypt (Israel) and aligned Egypt with the world's greatest military power (the United States).
Egypt’s military received $1.3 billion a year in military aid, the right to produce front-line American armor and aircraft — the kind of deal offered only to top-tier allies like Japan, the U.K. and (not incidentally) Israel.
Over the years, this carefully crafted alliance between the United States and Anwar Sadat’s Egypt outlasted many efforts to destroy it. But will the Camp David peace accords survive Mubarak?
If the Egyptians' demands are not met in the current protests, Mubarak's regime will likely give way to an interim military government. And there will be no modern Pharoah to prevent the people from taking the next step.