Fitzpatrick: Cairo is burning, Obama should proceed with caution

Egypt, the United States' lone political ally in the Arab world, is currently in turmoil. Thousands of Egyptians have joined together to protest the decade-long rule of dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak.

This uprising spilled over into Egypt from neighboring Tunisia, where anti-government sentiment has long been brewing. Wikileaks' publication of diplomatic cables, some of which detailed the abuses of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, may have served as a catalyst toward open protest in both countries.

The White House has long tolerated Mubarak's rule because the president has proven a valuable asset in the region. Under Mubarak, Egypt cooled tensions with Israel and has provided some level of assistance in combating international terrorism – a top U.S. foreign policy objective.

It is, therefore, understandable that Obama administration officials would shy away from using strong language to address the Egyptian situation; they have not referred to Mubarak as a dictator. The administration has been wise in its caution thus far. As the situation developed, it was unclear how powerful a movement the uprising would become or how certain involved parties, such as the Egyptian army or the Muslim Brotherhood, would react.

It is now time, however, to increase American efforts to cautiously engage the Egyptian public. As I type this, protesters are planning a "million-man march" on the presidential compound and the army has decreed it will not take physical action against Egyptian citizens. The United States must learn from the Iranian Revolution and not repeat the same mistakes it made in 1979. The situations may not be perfectly identical, but they are similar enough that a comparison can be made.

Should Mubarak voluntarily relinquish power or be forcibly ousted, the resulting power vacuum could be filled by a number of different groups. The army could take power in a coup in order to maintain control of the nation, a democratic interim government may be established, or, scariest of all, the Brotherhood or other Islamist groups could make a power grab.

That final scenario is anathema to American interests in the Middle East. The United States would once again have one of its strongest allies in the region turn into one of its most contrarian enemies. Thus, it is absolutely imperative that the Obama administration begins to actively, but cautiously, engage the Egyptian people.

The United States has for decades supported a dictatorial president ruling by decree, and there's no rewriting that shameful bit of history. Fortunately, there is still time to reverse the damage before it's too late. If the leaders of the United States reach out a little further, speak out against the harshness of the Mubarak regime and shame President Mubarak for attempting to prevent communication within Egypt and between Egypt and the outside world, they can prevent anti-American sentiment in Egypt from becoming a system of government as it has in Iran.