With a million Egyptians expected to protest today against President Hosni Mubarak's dictatorial rule, there's a growing sense that this could be one of those pivotal, heart-swelling moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But if the Arab world is truly on the verge of a democratic revolution, there's also a sense that the U.S. response in recent days has been so wishy-washy as to endanger America's standing and interests in the Middle East.
"This is history in the making and whatever the U.S. position is going to be right now, it will be remembered for generations to come,'' says Omar Ashour, an Egyptian-born political scientist at Britain's Exeter University.
"I would urge it not to make the same mistake it made in Iran'' — backing the unpopular, autocratic shah — "but for once to put their eggs in the basket of democracy and freedom and support the demonstrations.''
Ashour and most other experts predict it's only a matter of time until Mubarak is forced out after nearly three decades in which he arguably has been a better friend to the United States and Israel than he has to his own repressed, impoverished people.
Yet the Obama administration has dithered, unwilling to wholeheartedly endorse the protests or to publicly say that the 82-year-old Mubarak needs to go.
The situation in Egypt remained fluid on Monday. Mubarak named a new government, firing the minister in charge of the hated security forces, in an attempt to appear open to demands for reform. But the United States and other countries began evacuating their citizens on chartered flights as banks remained closed, food shortages grew and protesters defied a curfew that had been pushed up an hour, to 3 p.m.
A loose coalition of opposition groups — led by Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel laureate — has called for a million Egyptians to protest today in Cairo and another million in Alexandria.
"I think this is going to continue and it's just amazing the bravery and challenge of the protesters on the ground,'' Ashour said. "I've lived in Egypt half my life, and I've never seen Egyptian people united that much on anything, even soccer.''
The protests began last week, prompted by those in Tunisia where demonstrators ran longtime President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali out of the country on Jan. 14.
As the most populous Arab nation, Egypt with its 85 million people poses a far greater challenge to U.S. policymakers. For all of his faults, Mubarak has been a trusted ally in the war on terror, a firm voice against a nuclear Iran, a valuable interlocutor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a strong custodian of Egypt's 31-year-old peace treaty with Israel, America's closest ally in the Mideast.
"Egypt has been the focal point of virtually all American policy in the region for the past three decades, and that's why it so hard for the (Obama) administration right now to get its bearings and figure out how to move forward,'' said Khaled Elgindy, a native Egyptian and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"So many of our policies rested on the person and regime of this one man and that's all going to have to change now,'' Elgindy said.
Mubarak's friendship and cooperation have come at a hefty price — $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid and a feeling among many Arabs that the United States, which touts its democratic values, has been hypocritical in supporting Mubarak and other Arab dictators. Despite all the U.S. money that has flowed into Egypt, a recent poll found that four out of five Egyptians have a negative view of the United States.
Indeed, although there have been no attacks against Americans, some protesters have noted that the weaponry used against them is American-made.
If Mubarak loses power, the nightmare scenario is that anti-Western Islamic extremists would take over. Mubarak has kept the lid on the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, but it remains Egypt's best known opposition group.
Still, few experts expect to see the Brotherhood grabbing control. It lacks a charismatic leader and enjoys less support among Egyptians than often perceived.
Ashour says he was among thousands of people at an anti-Mubarak rally in London this weekend where two well-known Islamists tried to take the microphone and chant Islamist slogans. The crowd started booing — just as demonstrators did at a Cairo rally his brother attended, Ashour said.
"If Mubarak goes away and there are free and fair elections I think their chances of forming the government will not be very high,'' Ashour said of the Brotherhood. "The only reason for their popularity is that they are permanently in opposition and can promise wildly and never deliver.''
A more likely scenario if Mubarak falls is that the powerful Egyptian army — largely equipped by the United States — will help ensure that the country moves peacefully toward elections, already scheduled for September. Though it has been loyal to Mubarak, the army said Monday it would not fire on demonstrators.
"The army is a very clear actor in this, and the army's main interest is stability, both inside and outside'' of Egypt, Elgindy said.
And for the sake of stability, he added, it's unlikely that any new Egyptian government would cancel the peace treaty with Israel or turn its back on the United States, a generous benefactor for decades.
Instead, elections could lead to a democratic, independent-minded government like that in Turkey, where a moderate Islamist party is in charge but has maintained generally good relations with both the West and its Mideast neighbors.
"This is about normalcy,'' Elgindy said of the Egyptian protests. "People want to have normal lives and have a say in who represents them. It's not about promoting regional instability.''
Some experts think the United States could enhance its standing in the Arab world by publicly calling for Mubarak's ouster. But Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says the United States already has alienated so many Arabs with its support of Israel and Arab dictators that the end of Mubarak's regime will mean the end of what Cook calls "the American era'' in the Mideast.
"The natural inclination in Washington will be to see some way to influence the process of change so that it is less damaging to U.S. interests. Forget it,'' Cook wrote Monday on the Daily Beast website.
"Arabs are writing their own narrative and Washington would do well to make a strong statement in favor of the democratic aspirations of the people and then back off. Washington should expend its diplomatic efforts accommodating itself to the realities of a changed Middle East, not trying to change it.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.