Eighteen days of protest ended 30 years of one-man rule by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. While the demonstrations had been mounting in intensity and reflected deep-seated grievances that had been building over decades, his decision Friday to step down was never certain. As the country enters a new era, Egypt’s future is unclear. The army is now in charge, and its commitment to democracy is uncertain. Friends of Egypt and supporters of democracy should do all they can to push the nation toward a stable and sustainable democracy.
Protests began Jan. 25, 10 days after demonstrations forced the resignation of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Egyptians were complaining about high inflation, high unemployment and government repression. First, Mr. Mubarak tried the time-tested response — he sent riot police to break up the protests, but that tactic proved ineffective. Then the government took the country offline, disconnecting from the Internet in an attempt to silence and disorganize the protesters.
That too failed. In a last-gasp effort, loyalists unleashed a vicious assault on the protesters, with plainclothes security forces attacking demonstrators. Throughout this process, Mr. Mubarak offered one concession after another to the demonstrators in hope of placating the protesters. Rather than appeasing them, his moves only encouraged more demands.
Although Mr. Mubarak formally resigned Friday afternoon, the end was in sight as soon as the army took the streets. A military that consists primarily of conscripts is always an unreliable tool when deployed against the public: Too often soldiers see themselves in the faces of the protesters. Even the upper ranks of the military were torn between loyalty to the president and loyalty to the country. Their sympathies became clear when they noted that the protesters’ demands were “legitimate.” Finally, last Thursday, they chose the country over Mr. Mubarak, with a statement that signaled that the military, not the president, was in charge.
But Mr. Mubarak did not get the message. In the speech that followed the military communique, he said he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term. That infuriated both the protesters and the military. Finally, on Friday afternoon, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mr. Mubarak had stepped down, handing power to a military council.
It is not clear where Egypt will go. The military has suspended the constitution and dissolved Parliament. Remarkably, those are viewed as positive steps since both institutions are considered to be pillars of Mr. Mubarak’s rule. The military has promised to hold free and fair elections but first a new constitution has to be agreed on.
No one knows how long that will take, and the military has said only that it would be in charge “for a temporary period of six months or until the end of elections to the upper and lower houses of Parliament, and presidential elections.” A military council will run the country in the interim.
That could prove worrisome. Vice President Suleiman is a former intelligence chief who has shown little sympathy for democracy. The head of the military, former defense minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is said to be resistant to change.
The best check against military rule could be the newly empowered Egyptian public. There is little indication that they will settle for anything less than democracy. For them to be successful, however, they will need allies. And here, external support is vital.
Friends of Egyptian democracy should make it clear to the military that it must return to the barracks. This interim period must not seque to permanent rule. That means conditioning aid and assistance on seeing the transition through. It also means helping Egypt develop the institutions of a functioning democracy.
In practical terms, the country needs political parties. The Mubarak regime had eliminated most of the opposition. Ironically, that created an atmosphere in which only the Muslim Brotherhood would flourish. Now the temptation is to see the hand of that group in every action and to fear that the spread of Islamic influence will inhibit progress toward democracy. Egypt’s leaders must not give into that temptation.
The Muslim Brotherhood did win 20 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary election in 2005. In a country with a truly democratic culture, the secularists are more likely to prevail. Indeed, the events in Egypt and Tunisia undercut the appeal of Islamic groups who have insisted that they represent the real opposition in Arab states. In fact, it has been ordinary citizens fed up with sclerotic political systems and who lack economic opportunities that brought about change in these countries — not the Islamic militants.
That message should be spread throughout the Arab world. It is a message that should give hope to democrats everywhere and could help ensure that Egypt realizes its brightest future.