A new Middle East hostage crisis may be in the offing in Egypt.
With Egypt holding American hostages, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad slaughtering hundreds of people a day to remain in power and Libya's future political stability seriously in doubt, it's time to set aside any optimism about where the Middle East is headed.
There is no Arab spring, and there never was. Instead, the misguided hope that new governments would respect human rights has been replaced by escalating chaos.
The sentiment was that public revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria by angry and frustrated citizens would somehow lead to the replacement of dictatorial regimes with democracies, where individual rights would be respected and the rule of law would prevail. That was naive, at best.
Instead, rebels, not yet including those in Syria, seem to have replaced one set of autocrats with another. (In Syria, Assad is trying to beat the opposition into submission.)
The latest proof of this unsurprising turn of events comes from Egypt, which is holding for trial foreign citizens who include nearly 20 Americans. The Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are described as members of pro-democracy organizations, a group not particularly favored by the ruling military.
For the past 30-plus years, Egypt has been a staunch U.S. ally in the Middle East and a proponent of peaceful co-existence with Israel. But the downfall of the dictatorial regime of President Hosni Mubarak, which was aided by the U.S. State Department, has led to a military-run government heavily influenced by the politically extreme Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Egyptian citizens continue their daily protests in favor of liberalization, but there simply is no tradition of political freedom on which to build in Egypt or any other Middle Eastern country, save Israel.
With no end in sight to dissent in Egypt, it's difficult to say when or how President Obama will be able to win the release of the Americans, although this country retains considerable influence in Egypt as a result of many billions in foreign aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already has indicated Egypt's behavior threatens its U.S. support.
It's hard to see how Egypt benefits from holding foreign citizens and threatening to put them on trial. Indeed, it would appear to only complicate circumstances for military leaders.
But events of this nature can be driven as much by emotion as logic, and they can easily careen out of control. That's where this standoff is headed unless Egypt's military leaders move quickly and quietly to release their hostages.