Every bit of my heart, as an American and a human being and someone who deeply believes in democracy and human rights, is on the side of Egyptians who want exactly the rights and freedoms and opportunities all Americans take for granted. And we should say so to Mubarak: Do not touch another hair on the head of another protester, or you will face the wrath of the United States. ~Claire Berlinski

The administration could tell Mubarak that. Instead of the increased criticism it has already promised, the administration could threaten Mubarak with its “wrath.” Would this entail merely the suspension of aid, or would it involve more serious penalties? In other words, what exactly should the administration be threatening to do to Mubarak and his allies if they do not comply? It’s all very well to bluster and make threats, but Mubarak knows that our government is not going to risk seriously undermining the current government. He will assume that the administration is bluffing and playing to its domestic audience, and he will probably be right. If the administration is not bluffing, it genuinely risks making the same mistake that Carter made in his handling of the Shah and domestic opposition to his regime.

As for Berlinski’s position, she says that she wants Egyptian democrats to win. However, she qualifies this by saying that this is desirable only so long as the Muslim Brotherhood has no part in the political system that follows. This is consistent with her opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, but it seems entirely untenable as a practical matter. Officially, the Brotherhood has stayed out of the protests as an organization, but its members have been participants all along. By the end of the week, it looks as if the Brotherhood will have officially joined the protests as well. The protesters cannot be neatly separated into the “good” secular democrats here and the unacceptable Islamists over there. For that matter, there is as yet no evidence that any of the protesters object to the Brotherhood’s participation.

That significantly undermines the claim that Berlinski is fully in favor of Egyptian democracy, because she is clearly (and I think correctly) opposed to the consequences of empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which will almost certainly be the result of the realization of a democratic Egyptian government. It certainly won’t be possible for a democratic government in Egypt to bar political participation for one of the few groups that Mubarak permitted to operate. Al-Nahda in Tunisia was banned under Ben Ali, and it was only a matter of days after his flight before it was legalized as a political organization. It is entirely implausible that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is much stronger politically than Al-Nahda, could suffer the opposite fate in a post-Mubarak government. If it is that important to keep this organization away from power (for the sake of Egypt as well as for the sake of other interests), the U.S. and the Egyptian people are both “stuck” with some form of the current Egyptian government, whether Mubarak is the ruler or not, and that is a government that does not permit meaningfully free political participation and competition.

If Berlinski is dead-set against Muslim Brotherhood participation in a future Egyptian government, she can’t actually want our government to inflict its “wrath” on Mubarak for suppressing these protests, or at least she can’t want the government’s “wrath” to amount to very much. It’s a bit like agitating against the Tsar and his Cossacks, but then qualifying it by saying, “Of course, we don’t want to have a revolutionary dictatorship.” It sounds good (“I’m for liberal democracy”), but it is completely unrealistic.

Update: Jonathan Wright (via Arabist.net) makes some helpful observations:

The Brotherhood knows that the world (especially the United States and Europe) are watching events in Egypt closely. If the protests appear to be Brotherhood-led, the government will feel free to use much more brutal methods to disperse protesters. For the moment it suits the Brotherhood’s interests to give the impression that there is a broad coalition united against Hosni Mubarak, including liberals and leftists. This explains why Brotherhood members who have taken part in the protests have refrained from chanting slogans with religious connotations. The impression of a broad coalition also helps domestically — if the Brotherhood take the lead, it would frighten off some of the other groups.