The United States faces an intensely uncertain future in Egypt, a stalwart ally of decades in the volatile Middle East, where key tenets of American foreign policy are now thrown into doubt.
Behind President Barack Obama's praise for Egypt's protesters and the outcome they achieved lie major unanswered questions about what will come next now that President Hosni Mubarak has been overthrown after 30 years of authoritarian rule. For many people in Egypt, they were years of oppression, corruption and poverty; but for the U.S., Mubarak was an anchor of stability at the helm of the world's largest Arab nation, enforcing a peace treaty with Israel and protecting vital U.S. interests, including passage for oil through the Suez Canal.
For now, the military is in charge, but whether, when or how a transition will be made to the kind of democratic society that meets the protesters' demands remains unknown.
Speaking at the White House on Friday, Obama acknowledged difficult days ahead and unanswered questions but expressed confidence that the answers will be found.
Most tellingly, as the U.S. warily eyes the days ahead, Obama singled out the Egyptian military for praise in the restraint it showed through more than two weeks of largely peaceful protests.
But the president emphasized the military's role as a "caretaker" leading up to elections now set for September and said it must now "ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people." He said that means lifting Egypt's hated 30-year-old "emergency" police powers laws, protecting the rights of citizens, revising the country's law and constitution "to make this change irreversible and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free." But just as the U.S. had limited influence during the uprising that seemed to spring almost out of nowhere to overtake Egypt, it has limited influence over what happens next.
The U.S. provides some $1.5 billion a year in aid to Egypt, the vast majority of it to the military, and has a good relationship with the Egyptian military, which often sends officers here for training. That doesn't guarantee a commanding U.S. role.
"Do we have leverage or influence?" asked Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state. "Well, did we have leverage and influence over the past few weeks? That's highly arguable." Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, said it will take weeks or months to sort things out. And in the end, he said, "I think Egypt will be a far less forgiving place for American interests as democracy takes root _ if in fact it does." Asked about the uncertainty ahead, especially with respect to the role of the military, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs could only answer: "I don't think we have to fear democracy." Beyond the question of who will end up in control in Egypt and whether the U.S. will still be able to count the country as a firm and stable ally, there are concerns over whether the unrest that brought down Mubarak will spread to other nations in the Middle East, including oil-rich autocratic neighbors.
That prospect looms even as the U.S. handling of the Egypt situation has angered some leaders in the region who thought Washington was too quick to abandon Mubarak _ although Obama and his administration studiously avoided ever calling outright for the president's ouster.
On Friday, after Mubarak's resignation was announced, Obama was able to give fuller expression to his views.
"By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people's hunger for change," Obama said, in words reminiscent of his own presidential campaign.
Of the protesters, the president said: "This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied." He compared them to the Germans who tore down the Berlin Wall and to independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi's nonviolent ranks in India.
Mubarak's resignation came less than 24 hours after he'd surprised the White House and many others by delivering a defiant speech Thursday in which he refused to step down, confounding widespread expectations that he'd do so. Obama learned of the announcement of his resignation Friday morning when an aide brought him a note during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Then he spent a few moments, along with the rest of the world, watching the joyous celebrations in Cairo on TV.
"Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence," Obama said. "For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence _ not terrorism, not mindless killing _ but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more." The protests arose in a country with enormous social problems, with vast differences between the haves and the have-nots. It is a country where more than 50 percent of the adult population is illiterate and some 40 percent live below or close to the poverty line. Rising costs of food were among the leading factors underpinning the protests.
Some of the impoverished Egyptians are beneficiaries of U.S. food aid; officials said Friday that U.S. aid to Egypt was not expected to be affected by Mubarak's departure.
It was not clear what role Islamic militant groups such as the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood might play in the new government that emerges. Also of critical importance: whether the evolving new government will continue to honor the landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, will be in Israel on Sunday and Monday, with developments in Egypt expected to be at the top of the agenda. The meeting was previously scheduled. Mullen is also visiting Jordan, another Mideast ally facing the prospect of civil unrest.