Mubarak may soon step down, but Egypt's protesters need a leader and plan -- quickly

Demanding that Mubarak leave isn't enough. Egyptian protesters must now find a leader and solidify a plan for transition. A vision for what is to come is just as important as getting the regime out of power.

Egypt is the cusp of transformational change. Protesters have finally succeeded in making their voices heard after ripping off the rag that was held to their face, suffocating and stifling their expression. They have raised their voices despite the tear gas that has made them hoarse, despite the Internet and mobile network blackout that cut off their communications, and despite being conditioned into complacency and stagnation for over 30 years.

The Mubarak regime yet to take its fingers out of its ears and answer the people’s call for change. President Hosni Mubarak refused to stand down yet again in his latest address to the people. Initial cosmetic changes (Mr. Mubarak dismissed his cabinet and promised not to run for re-election) only stoked, not slaked, Egyptians’ desire for fundamental change.

Democracy and political reform are finally within reach of the Egyptian people, but there are many developments that need to take place before Egypt is finally rid of his regime and onto a viable path to democracy. Now more than ever, Egyptians must start thinking ahead.

They need to think about what type of government they want when Mubarak finally falls and who will lead it. It is not enough just to be rid of the president or his cabinet. There must be a plan in place and someone to lead the transition to political reform if opposition protesters are to complete the work they began with the protests calling for Mubarak’s ouster.

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One thing is abundantly clear. A transition under Mubarak is not acceptable. He must leave office for there to be any meaningful transition. His actions to agitate and attack the peaceful protesters – sending out paid armed thugs and plain-clothes officers pretending to be his supporters – is criminal. His vision of “transition” is a government made up of his cronies, the same people who were in power.

Opposition needs transition plan

But the opposition must put forward a clear alternative plan for transition. They must lobby the international community to help them implement that plan. Who will arise out of the constellation of protesters to offer clear leadership for this revolution?

One protester who exemplifies the attitude of most Egyptians said, “We need a just government. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Islamic or secular. The issue is justice.” A just and representative government is key, yes, but it certainly does matter whether any new Egyptian government is Islamic or secular. It matters whether women’s rights, minority rights, and religious rights are respected. It matters whether capable technocrats are put in place. It matters whether the rule of law is enforced by a fair constitution.

This attitude is not just among the average protester on the street. A long time Egyptian blogger and advocate for political reform, Mohamed Gamal, states, “We don’t care about a leader.” And when asked about what the protesters would do if they succeeded, “We haven’t thought that far ahead.”

This attitude is worrisome. The Egyptian protesters have come too far to let their revolution slip away from them; and it will slip away from them if they don’t plan for what can happen after they succeed.

Average Egyptians are understandably fearful of chaos and a vacuum of power, especially after they have been conditioned by patriarchal rule for decades. The opposition leadership must taken this into account and assure average Egyptians that there is an orderly alternative to Mubarak’s vision of transition. It is incumbent on the opposition leadership to do so if it wants to prove itself worthy of the trust and loyalty of the Egyptian people.

The protesters have proven their courage, serving as an inspiration not only to Egyptians, but people around the world. Now they must prove their leadership and stamina.

Need a leader for Stage 2

The spontaneity and universality of these protests have been extraordinarily powerful in conveying strong desire for change. In many ways it is good that there has been no one leader, no organized political force up to this point. It demonstrates that this change is the collective will of the Egyptian people. But Stage 1 is over. Now it’s onto Stage 2.

The protesters got away with no leadership these last two weeks, but this week and next, a leader must step up and channel the collective energy that has shaken the Egyptian regime into a clear way forward for a secular, just, representative, and responsive government. A leader must think beyond the immediate goal of deposing Mubarak.

Egypt should learn the lessons of Iran – Iran in 1979 and Iran in 2009. In 1979, a universal coalition of Iranian forces came together to overthrow the shah, much in the same way much of Egypt has come together to get rid of the current regime. Secular and Islamic, communists and merchants, farmers and city dwellers all came together to protest against the monarchy. They all had their own vision for what Iran could become, but it was Ayatollah Khomenei who was the leader, who gave the revolution a vision and a path forward. That is why Iran became an Islamic Republic and not a secular republic.

Will Egypt end up like Iran?

Will the same happen in Egypt? Will Islamist forces emerge as the one group that paves the path of the Egyptian revolution beyond the immediate goal of removing Mubarak’s regime? Will Mohamad ElBaradei shake off the patina of international diplomat, removed from the concerns of the masses, and give strategic vision and a way forward? Or will Wael Ghonim, the 30-something Google executive behind the galvanizing “We Are All Khaled Saed” Facebook page, channel the collective energies of his generation?

Will the notoriously splintered secular opposition groups finally organize themselves to present a way forward for Egypt?

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Or will Egypt go the way of Iran 2009, full of sound and fury, but ultimately failing to effect meaningful change to the system demonstrators protested? Will the regime be able to manipulate the diffuseness of the protesters to remain in power? Will they have to settle for “Mubarak lite” under newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman?

Egyptians must answer these questions now, before the Mubarak regime falls, not after. The plan for a transition period and a vision for what is to come are just as important as getting the regime out of power.

Lydia Khalil is Egyptian-American, a board member for the Project on Middle East Democracy, and a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

[Editor's note: This commentary has been updated to reflect recent news developments.]

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