As the Egyptian Army refuses to crush the current unrest, it becomes clearer what the US needs to do about the situation, and what I believe we have already done.
The real kingmaker in Egypt is still the army – in choosing to stand down, they have shown that they have lost faith in Mubarak. They have shown another thing as well. Mubarak doesn’t control them – the US effectively does. The Egyptian military relies on the US for most of its weapons systems, so when Obama says ‘don’t use force’, it turns out his words mean something – probably more than Mubarak’s. He more than any Egyptian general or president has leverage over the Egyptian army, because he controls their access to the weapons they need to feel safe right next to Israel. This may be seen as an imposition on Egyptian sovereignty, but it also may be seen as a key factor in keeping these protests from becoming a massacre.
So the next step? Make it clear to the military that under whoever wins democratic elections, military aid will continue undeterred as long as human rights are respected and the truce with Israel is upheld. This will remove any incentive the army has to interfere in who becomes the next leader – any ideological preference they might hold is not likely to be stronger than their desire to keep receiving advanced weaponry (and, perhaps more acute, the need to keep receiving parts and support for the weapons it has). Best case scenario is probably a situation like in Turkey, where the army has a more active role than anyone would like to acknowledge but cannot suspend Democracy for any significant length of time because it in turn depends on the US and NATO. And compared to the status quo, that’s a pretty good best case scenario.
The last thing to consider – precedent. If the American-funded Egyptian military stands down in exchange for continuing its supply of goodies, the possibility opens up of the same occurring elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, it is safe to assume that a stable, peaceful, human-rights respecting state will be better off than a similar state that is undemocratic and lacks respect for individual rights. Thus, in the long term, if the US pressures armies with which it is aligned not to get in the way of democratic movements, those countries will be better off than countries like Uzbekistan that choose to align with China and Russia so as to continue with their sovereign right to massacre their citizens.