Even if the demonstrations fail to overthrow one of the longest-serving autocrats in modern history, then Mr. Mubarak will be an ineffective leader without any popular support. Egypt’s pre-imminence in the Arab world will diminish with a weakened leader who has lost touch with the reality of a public intent on removing him from power.
This is not the time for doubt, waiting, or conditional support from the Obama administration. It must offer a clear statement that Mubarak needs to step down and allow for a transitional government to take over until free elections can be held.
Should Mubarak manage to stay in power, he would no longer be able to serve the interests of the US in the region. With no popular support or regional clout, Mubarak would be unable to contribute to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that President Obama desperately wants to get under way. And the secular nature of Egyptian society would suffer under a weakened leader who has historically kept Islamic extremists at arm’s length.
Wavering message from Washington
The Obama administration still appears to be weighing its options as to how to respond to the unprecedented upheaval in Egypt. Even after late-issued support for the cause of democracy in Egypt and an overdue call for free elections, the US government has remained mum on whether Mubarak should stay.
The White House and State Department initially issued careful, measured statements – both denouncing violence and supporting the need for reforms, while also acknowledging Mubarak’s role as an ally. Just yesterday, the State Department sent former ambassador to Egypt, Frank G. Wisner, to Cairo where he is "meeting with Egyptian officials and providing his assessment." If he carries with him any message from the White House, it has not been made public.
By the time the administration figures things out, the events on the ground may move too fast for an unequivocal response to be meaningful.
A transitional government and free elections
What the Obama administration needs to do is privately ask Mubarak to step down. There is now potential for a representative transitional government to fill the vacuum before free elections. Newly-appointed vice president Omar Suleiman is beginning dialogue with the various opposition groups. Though still jockeying, a loose coalition (including the Muslim Brotherhood) has banded together in support of Nobel laureate and Mubarak-critic Mohamed ElBaradei.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. ElBaradei will remain a central figure for the opposition. But the role of another key player in the conflict has been made clearer. The Egyptian military – whose role was for a time the great-unknown factor in the chaos – has taken the position that it will not intervene in the protests. With this apparent siding with the Egyptian people, the military might well become a vital support to any transitional government before elections.
When elections come, they would need to be transparent and internationally monitored. If the democratic process is allowed to take hold, the United States may find that it has a credible partner, rather than a passive conduit of American foreign policy.
Muslim Brotherhood not a true threat to US
Of course, underlying US hesitation in Egypt is the concern that the Muslim Brotherhood may come to power, even through free elections. But fearing the party’s unchecked ascent to power over an Islamic state is largely unfounded. Such a fear misunderstands the largely secular nature of much of Egyptian society, and the nature of a democracy that would include not just the Brotherhood, but other opposition members as well.
It is clear that US will be better served in the long run by supporting real democracy in Egypt, whether it likes every aspect of the outcome or not.
No room for halting position on Mubarak
While it may seem prudent for Washington to take a wait-and-see attitude, the historical nature of these demonstrations demands a strong moral position that accepts the popular grievances of the Egyptian people and calls for the removal of the target of their anger. The administration simply cannot afford to take a halting position on Mubarak’s staying in power any longer.
After 30 years of authoritarian rule, it is rather absurd to suggest that Mubarak will suddenly commit himself to the democratic process, overseeing free elections. Whatever concessions he makes now are too little, too late. The genie is out of the bottle, and there is no way to put it back. As Obama is fond of saying, this is a teachable moment.
Egypt has never witnessed this kind of mass unrest, not even during the 1952 revolution that overthrew King Farouk from power. The 1952 revolution was organized by army officers, and people simply celebrated in the streets.
This mass revolution, let’s call it the Nile Revolution, is a popular revolt against an aging autocrat. The people simply had enough of the corruption. The people had enough of 29 years of martial law. The people had enough of an economy that leaves them impoverished and destitute. Under Mubarak, Egyptians cannot vote freely, speak freely, express themselves freely, or assemble freely.
Listen to Egyptians, Mubarak must go
If the Obama administration truly wants a free Egypt that can enhance its relationship with the United States, it will ask its former ally, Mubarak, to step down. What price is the White House willing to pay in order to maintain the status quo ante?
It is time to end the US silence on the immediate future of an aging and corrupt ruler and give democracy a fighting chance. It was Obama who prophetically anticipated this event. During his speech at Cairo University back in 2009, he said, “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”
Mubarak has lost the consent of the people. What do Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson tell us about governing by consent? Obama was correct to point out these democratic ideals to the Egyptians. Now that the moment of truth is at hand, he needs to take the moral high ground and fully support the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, who could not be clearer in their demand that Mubarak must go.
It was Obama who said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." The Egyptians are the change that they seek, and the US must support them wholeheartedly, not just in word, but in deed.