As Egypt is engulfed by turmoil, the world's attention has inevitably turned to the Middle East. Scenes on television of tens of thousands of Egyptians calling for the ouster of the President Hosni Mubarak have been broadcast around the globe, sparking a range of emotions and fears. On the one hand, there are those who find something stirring about the large and mostly peaceful demonstrations filling central Cairo.
For decades, the Arab world has resisted the democracy that swept across Eastern Europe, Latin America and the former Soviet Union, toppling an array of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes.
Now, at last, it appears that the winds of change have finally begun to dismantle the old order in Egypt, the most populous and important Arab country.
But there is another raw sentiment that these scenes also arouse: profound anxiety. After all, the possible takeover by radical forces hostile to Israel and the West is a real and present danger. Such a development would alter the strategic balance in the region.
Egypt has one of the largest militaries in all of Africa and the Middle East, and it commands the Suez Canal, one of the busiest waterways in the world. The canal – the fastest sea route connecting Europe and Asia – services some 8% of all global sea trade, including approximately 1.8 million barrels a day of oil.
No less crucial is the fact that ever since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel three decades ago, Egypt has served as the linchpin of American policy in the Arab world. Rightly or wrongly, Mubarak was viewed by both Washington and Jerusalem as a bulwark against the forces of extremism.
Should that extremism now succeed in overwhelming Egypt, it would infuse radical Islamic fundamentalism with renewed vigor.
Like-minded street protests have already begun to spread to ostensible American allies such as Jordan and Yemen, raising questions about the long-term viability of those regimes. So it's not far-fetched to suggest that a "democratic domino effect" may be about to reorder the political reality in the region.
But the problem, of course, is far more complex than merely cheering on the movements for growing liberty in the Arab world. What Egyptians and others choose to do with their new-found freedom is where things could get scary.
IT'S NICE, and perhaps even noble, to hope for free elections throughout the region, but dangerously naïve to think they are a panacea. What if Egyptians go the way of their Palestinian neighbors in Gaza, who voted Hamas into power? On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign minister predicted just that, saying he is "sure" the uprising in Egypt will help create "an Islamic Middle East."
Or what if Egypt's new leadership turns it back on peace with the Jewish state, reversing decades of normalization, however partial and fitful? A glimpse of what may be in the offing can be found in remarks made on Monday by Muhammad Ghannem, a senior official in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who said openly that "the people should be prepared for war against Israel."
Needless to say, there is not a whole lot that can be done to alter the course of events. But there is a crucial lesson to be learned here regarding the limits of peace with our neighbors.
For decades, our peace-making policies have been based on the flawed notion that one can forge lasting agreements with despots. But now, as Mubarak's regime teeters, it's becoming rapidly clear just how short-sighted these policies may have been.
Israel has handed over territory to corrupt and decrepit Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian regimes that are lacking in basic legitimacy. We traded tangible assets in exchange for "peace" with the leaders of these entities, ignoring the simple fact that they do not represent the will of their own people.
"It sounds like the Israelis are terrified of what may happen in Egypt," a German diplomat told Haaretz this week. "There is genuine concern about the fate of the peace agreement."The reason for this "genuine concern" is simple: When a tyrant is deposed, the people tend to throw out everything else along with him. It was simply foolish to bet our futures on the longevity of authoritarian governments.
Consequently, we may soon find ourselves encircled by newly emboldened extremist regimes which will unhesitatingly tear up whatever deals were reached by their predecessors.
This should serve as a blunt warning to all those still pining for a treaty with the likes of Syrian leader Bashar Assad or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For such leaders can be here today and gone tomorrow. Unlike democracies, their word is only good as long as they hang on to power.
As Ronald Reagan told the British House of Commons in June 1982: "Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root."
Nor, he might have added, do agreements reached with dictators.