As I write hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the resignation of the increasingly beleaguered and pathetic-looking Hosni Mubarak. When a people have lost their fear there are few things more wretched than a tyrant clinging on to power while it crumbles away beneath his grip. With over a million out on the streets across Egypt and a pledge by the army not to intervene, surely even Mubarak has to realise the writing's on the wall. Things just cannot carry on as they are. With mass mobilisations, an army refusing to follow presidential orders, a general strike crippling the country, and international calls for him to step down in the name of stability, something has got to give. If the army aren't backing the regime the only social forces with a direct interest in the dictatorship - big business, police (both overt and secret) and other dependents of the security apparatus - appear to lack the weight necessary to drown the uprisings in blood.
Unsurprisingly there has been some talk of what comes next. Assuming Mubarak and his regime are swept away by the end of the week (protesters have given him until Friday to leave power), who will fill the vacuum? While there are reports of the formation of neighbourhood committees, a development ironically spurred on by the random violence of National Democratic Party thugs, we are not in a situation of dual power. Yet. As the movement continues to grow and the labour movement revives off the back of strike action, these community defence organisations could put on more flesh as they organise to meet food shortages and make up for the collapse of local governance. Clearly for the revolution to assume a socialist colouration leftists on the ground will likely be doing everything they can to participate in them and encourage their development further.
All this represents a massive headache for the US and the main European powers. They neither want Egypt to fall to the Muslim Brotherhood in a latter day repeat of the 1979 Iranian revolution (which doesn't look all that likely anyway given the character of the protests so far and a certain reluctance by the Brothers to get stuck into recent social struggles). Nor a prolongation of the stand off between the Mubarak regime and the people. The more it carries on, the greater the likelihood of civil war and/or the return of the spectre manifesting itself in embryo in the neighbourhood committees.
Egypt is, of course, home of the strategically crucial Suez Canal. An Egypt opposed to Western interests, be it Islamist, nationalist or, (dare we say it?) socialist, would represent a major defeat of their geopolitical strategy as it would restrict access to Middle Eastern oil and the markets of India, China, and South East Asia. I imagine there's been a few sleepless nights at the US State Department.
Amid much handwringing and the semi-ritualised "Egypt's government is a matter for the Egyptian people" (an oft-quoted principle that got stuck down the memory hole in the lead up to the Iraq war), Hillary Clinton and Alistair Burt have been singing from the same hymn sheet. They of course "deplore" the violence and call for the return of stability.
It's stability that's the key here. Political revolutions against corrupt and authoritarian regimes are not a rare occurrence in the era of declining American hegemony. They come with the geopolitical territory. Provided they're relatively quick and don't challenge US and Western interests, the State Department has learned to live with them (how different it was before the collapse of the USSR). But the longer the Egyptian uprising goes on, the more worried the US will be. This is why it is very keen to encourage an "orderly transition" from the ancien regime to some form of democratic governance.
One of the key lessons the global ruling class have learned is liberal democracy remains the best and most stable forms of government for the continued rule of capital. Over a century's experience in its heartlands has demonstrated its effectiveness incorporating and blunting radical challenges to the prevailing order. In Western Europe and North America liberal democracy in the post-war period has more or less successfully contained religious, regional, racial, and class contradictions. Dictatorships on the other hand are very brittle. They're good for a short sharp fix, like seeing off mass communist parties or other undesirables, but ultimately instability will return to haunt them. This maybe a reality the US has learned to live with, but it is also one they'd rather do without. Hence Western powers' warm words about democracy and human rights aren't just ideological window dressing for resource and market grabs in the developing world. They're also about propagating the political, institutional, and cultural underpinnings that can sustain the rule of capital over the long term.
With this in mind, it's perhaps a little bit more than coincidence that a lot of media attention has been showered on Mohamed ElBaradei (this report is typical of the coverage). Of all the leaders of the domestic opposition ElBaradei is a known quantity to North American and European foreign ministries. As a former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and recipient of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, he is a safe pair of hands. And his intransigence in the face of the US case for Iraqi WMD is a boon for those who wish him to oversee a transitional government. Despite making his career outside Egypt, that episode demonstrates he's no American puppet.
ElBaradei however appears to have few supporters in Egypt - there is no social movement as such with which his name is associated. The 'National Association for Change' of which he is head has a minimum programme for democratic change but is itself an umbrella organisation set up by various opposition leaders and civil society actors. He is therefore a figurehead nominated by social movement organisations and parties rather than a leader in his own right. That said this could be his strength in any post-Mubarak carve-up. Without a firm base of his own he could be seen as a neutral figure above existing and emerging political factions. Ahead of presidential elections his person is the perfect stop gap acceptable to Islamists, liberals, and sections of the left.
While the importance of ElBaradei to a slow transition scenario (outlined here) is obvious, I very much doubt the revolution will accept nothing less than Mubarak's resignation with immediate effect followed by the formation of a provisional government. That outcome, which seems most likely at the moment, could still see the West-friendly ElBaradei play the role outlined above.
After Egypt the question is whether revolution will spread. Given the pivotal cultural and economic position Egypt occupies in the Arab world it's hard to see how it cannot. North Africa and the Middle East are almost exclusively ruled by dictators and self-styled monarchs, and frustration and anger from below is in anything but short supply. Some have taken action to head revolution off at the pass. Others are sitting and waiting to see if the fire catches their countries. It will also be interesting to see if it spreads northwards into a European Union being forced fed a diet of unnecessary and ideological cuts. This isn't to say the likes of Ireland, Greece and Britain are staring revolution in the face. But I would be very surprised if numbers taking to the EU's streets aren't swelled by hundreds of thousands inspired and encouraged by the scenes from Suez, Alexandria, and Cairo.