Egypt’s 83 million people are savvy, patriotic, generally well educated, and well plugged-in to global media. Mubarak’s rule has seen many terrible rights abuses (including some committed at Washington’s behest, under the renditions program). But the country also has a long constitutional history. That history was often betrayed by Mubarak. In the key parliamentary elections of last November, he barred international groups from monitoring and the violations committed by his security forces persuaded all the opposition parties to drop out. His own ruling party “won” a resounding victory—with fewer than 20 percent of adult Egyptians voting.

But still, despite—or perhaps because of—that dismal recent record, enough Egyptians today understand what a real representative democracy should look like that they have a good chance of building one.

Egypt is the most populous and politically weighty country in the Arab world. As it moves (perhaps speedily) toward democratic accountability, the role its government plays in the Middle East will change—and therefore, so will the geopolitics of the whole region. 

Mubarak became president (after Pres. Anwar Sadat’s assassination) in October 1981, two years after Egypt signed its peace with Israel. Under Mubarak, Egypt always adhered closely to the treaty’s terms. But the services it performed for Israel and the United States went much further than that. Indeed, Mubarak’s Egypt became both a shield and a spear for Israeli interests in the region, and globally. It shielded Israel politically from demands that Israel abide by international law in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories. And it worked closely with Israel to combat Hamas and Israel’s many other challengers. 

The man whom Mubarak named as Vice-President over the weekend, Omar Suleiman, was Mubarak’s point man in those latter efforts—and he has been widely hated in Egypt for that reason.

Given the strength of pan-Arab, pro-Palestinian feeling in Egypt, if a successor government is to be stable and accountable it will have to step back from most of those “extra” services that Mubarak provided Israel—even if, as I expect, it continues to abide by the peace treaty’s formal provisions. Cairo will likely join actively in the growing global movement demanding that Israel to abide by international law in the occupied territories, withdraw speedily to the pre-1967 lines, and recognize a fully independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

That will transform the balance of political/diplomatic power in the region. Jordan also has a peace treaty with Israel. Right now it also has a growing popular movement calling for democracy and accountability. Jordan also has a majority of its population who are of Palestinian origin. If Cairo shifts to a position of strong support for Palestinian rights, Jordan’s King Abdullah will have to follow.

How should Washington meet such a shift to robust support of Palestinian rights by Cairo and Amman?  For many years now, the aid that Washington has given both governments has been justified largely by the closeness of their ties to Israel. As they shuck off many of those ties (even while, as is likely, keeping to the formal terms of their peace treaties), will lawmakers here seek to reduce the aid?

To do this would be extremely foolish. Our aid programs to both countries certainly need to change. For too long they have focused tightly on a type of “security” aid that has brought mainly insecurity and rights abuses to the citizens of both countries.  The current popular movements are demanding an end to that repression and a much-reduced role for the “security” forces in their countries’ politics.  American lawmakers should support those calls, and provide the kind of aid that can buttress democratic governance and economic stability.

If Washington does not support the popular movements in this way, then surely other governments will—and Washington influence in the region will further erode.

The pro-democracy uprisings now sweeping the Arab world are movements that Americans should support. These movements call for equality and the rule of law both domestically and internationally. Is this something Washington can stand behind? I certainly hope so.

Helena Cobban, a veteran Middle East analyst, blogs at Just World News.