THE POPULAR revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a long time coming. With varying degrees of seriousness, successive US administrations have tried to dissuade Mubarak from repressing nearly all forms of political opposition. Now, the inevitable has happened: Egyptians have taken to the streets to shake off a ruler whom they call pharaoh, and who has failed to provide jobs, bread, dignity, and freedom.
Worrisome as the geopolitical consequences of Mubarak’s fall may be, and no matter how awkward it might be to abandon a close ally of three decades, President Obama has no other feasible option but to align America, emphatically, with the people of Egypt and their democratic aspirations.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for an orderly transition in Egypt. This is a coy way of hinting that the administration is already looking beyond Mubarak without explicitly calling for his departure. But even if Obama does not feel comfortable saying overtly that the United States wants Mubarak removed — for fear of the effect on other Arab rulers who have partnered with Washington — the president ought to spell out what he means by an orderly transition. Doing so would show Egyptians that America wants what they want for their country.
Obama should call for consultations between the current government — headed in a large part by military figures — and a representative council of the opposition, which might be led by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei. The purpose should be to prepare the way for a free presidential election. Since a presidential election is already scheduled for September, the generals recently appointed by Mubarak to lead the government would not lose face by entering into talks about the vote. But this election would be different from other recent votes in Egypt. It would not be a sham.
Any such scenario would have to take into account Mubarak’s suppression of secular opposition movements, a practice that has left the Muslim Brotherhood by far the best organized political faction in Egypt. Once a terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated its position in recent years, accepting the principle of democracy. Nonetheless, its inclusion in a new Egyptian government would arouse substantial concern in the United States and especially Israel, given its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
But the answer to fears of the Brotherhood should be to encourage the rise of secular parties. Any more heavy-handed attempt to produce a favorable result for the United States in an Egyptian election is bound to backfire. The United States has more to gain as an honest broker, seeking to advance the will of the Egyptian people. Obama would be serving both the cause of democracy in Egypt and of stability in the region if he publicly asked the army officers who are likely to manage the coming transition to allow the freedoms of expression and assembly that will be needed to build effective political parties.
However convenient it always seemed, Washington’s protracted tolerance for Mubarak’s misrule has reached its logical end point. The mistakes of the past can be rectified only if the United States now sides with Egyptians who are risking their lives for the sake of an honest, accountable government they can choose for themselves.