Globe Editorial

Obama should take steps now to help speed Egypt’s transition

February 3, 2011

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PRESIDENT OBAMA delivered the right message Tuesday evening when he stressed that only the Egyptian people can choose their leaders, but also said he had just told President Hosni Mubarak that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.’’ Since Mubarak had just told Egyptians he intended to remain in office until presidential elections are held in September, Obama’s statement was a pointed rejection of Mubarak’s stubborn stand — and a gesture of support for Egyptians who have taken to the streets to demand an end to Mubarak’s regime.

Especially after yesterday’s attacks by pro-regime forces against protesters, Washington can no longer ignore the contradiction between its longstanding partnership with Mubarak and Obama’s pledge to “stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world.’’ To show he means what he says, Obama should appoint a special envoy — or perhaps a few — to open up channels of communication with the disparate groups and factions in the Egyptian opposition.

There is no shortage of veteran diplomats and others who have contacts among the various Egyptian opposition figures and groups. The Obama administration needs to engage with them all — including the Muslim Brotherhood. One consequence of Mubarak’s silencing of nearly all political opponents is that their precise values and aims are not widely understood. Without judging the groups itself, the United States can help identify the new players in Egyptian politics and what they want.

America will not be able to determine the outcome of the current upheaval in Egypt — nor should it try. But the administration retains influence with senior military figures in Egypt who are likely to be making the key decisions about a political transition. Obama could win a modicum of trust from the new players in Egyptian politics if he can persuade the military leaders who are currently in power to immediately implement reasonable demands for reform coming from the opposition.

Obama should be ready to back two demands in particular for constitutional changes. One would eliminate the requirement that presidential candidates be members of the council of parties deemed legal by the Mubarak government. This article of the constitution prohibits both Muslim Brotherhood members and the military brass from running. The other key revision would be removal of the article that allows a president to run for an unlimited number of terms.

It will not be easy to overcome Egyptians’ mistrust of Washington for having turned a blind eye for so long to Mubarak’s police-state repression, but Americans, Egyptians, and their neighbors all stand to benefit if Obama makes that effort.