As I watched Hosni Mubarak address the Egyptian people last week, I thought to myself, "It didn't have to be this way."
In June 2005, as secretary of state, I arrived at the American University in Cairo to deliver a speech at a time of growing momentum for democratic change in the region. Following in the vein of President George W. Bush's second inaugural address, I said that the United States would stand with people who seek freedom. This was an admission that the United States had, in the Middle East more than any other region, sought stability at the expense of democracy, and had achieved neither. It was an affirmation of our belief that the desire for liberty is universal - not Western, but human - and that only fulfillment of that desire leads to true stability.
For a time it seemed that Egypt's leadership was responding - not so much to us but to their own people, who clamored for change. Egyptians had just witnessed the retreat of Syrian troops in Lebanon and the election of a new government; the purple-fingered free elections in Iraq; and the emergence of new leadership in Palestine. A few months later, freer if not fully free presidential elections followed raucous civic debate in Egypt's cafes and online. Though Mubarak's party won overwhelmingly, it seemed a kind of Rubicon had been crossed.
But shortly thereafter Mubarak reversed course. Parliamentary elections were a mockery, the hated "emergency law" remained in place and opposition figures such as Ayman Nour were imprisoned again. Egyptians seethed - anger that would eventually explode into Tahrir Square. The lesson to others in the region should be to accelerate long-delayed political and economic reforms.
Now the Mubarak regime is gone. There are understandable fears that these events will not turn out so well. The Muslim Brotherhood represents the most organized political force in Egypt. Mubarak always said that the choice was between him and the Brotherhood, and he pursued policies that fulfilled that prophecy. While many decent, more secular political leaders were harassed and jailed by the regime, the Brotherhood organized in the mosques and provided social services the regime could not. It will take time to level the playing field.
The United States knows democracy to be a long process - untidy, disruptive and even chaotic at times. I do not mean to understate the challenge to American interests posed by an uncertain future in Egypt. For all his failings, Mubarak maintained a cold peace with Israel, which became a pillar of Egyptian foreign policy. He supported moderate Palestinian leadership and helped keep Hamas at bay. But he could never do so fully because he was afraid of "the street." Authoritarians don't know or respect their people, and they fear them. The United States has taken a good deal of public blame from friends who secretly supported our policies - fueling hatred against us while shielding themselves.
We cannot determine the foreign policy preferences of Egypt's next government. But we can influence them through our ties to the military, links to civil society, and a promise of economic assistance and free trade to help improve the lot of the Egyptian people.
The most important step now is to express confidence in the future of a democratic Egypt. Egyptians are not Iranians, and it is not 1979. Egypt's institutions are stronger and its secularism deeper. The Brotherhood is likely to compete for the writ of the people in free and fair elections. They should be forced to defend their vision for Egypt. Do they seek the imposition of sharia law? Do they intend a future of suicide bombings and violent resistance to the existence of Israel? Will they use Iran as a political model? Al-Qaeda? Where will Egypt find jobs for its people? Do they expect to improve the lives of Egyptians cut off from the international community through policies designed to destabilize the Middle East?
Much has been made of Hamas's 2006 electoral "victory" and the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many factors set these cases apart. But even in these examples, extremists have struggle when faced with the challenges of governance.
What comes next is up to Egyptians. Many are young and full of revolutionary fervor. Democratic politics will be challenged by tenets of radical political Islam. This struggle is playing out across the region - in Iraq, Lebanon and especially Turkey, where decades of secularism have given way to the accommodation of religious people in the public square. In Egypt, Christians and followers of other religions will also have to find a place and a voice.
The next months, indeed years, are bound to be turbulent. Yet that turbulence is preferable to the false stability of autocracy, in which malignant forces find footing in the freedom gap that silences democratic voices.
This is not 1979, but it is not 1989 either. The fall of communism unleashed patriots who had long regarded the United States as a "beacon of freedom." Our history with the peoples of the Middle East is very different. Still, the United States should support the forces of democracy, not because they will be friendlier to us but because they will be friendlier to their own people.
Democratic governments, including our closest allies, do not always agree with us. Yet they share our most fundamental belief - that people must be governed by consent. It is as true today as it was when I said in 2005 that the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. We have only one choice: to trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.
The writer was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.