We are a long way from knowing how Egypt will turn out. The government is using all of its power — including a promised 15 percent raise for federal workers — to try to hang on. The Opposition is courageously pushing back, and, on Tuesday (February 8, 2011) it drew thousands of supporters to Liberation Square.
The United States and the European Union may not have been able to wheedle or push President Hosni Mubarak from power. Still, they badly miscalculated when they endorsed Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, to lead the transition to democracy.
Mr. Suleiman may talk sweetly to Washington and Brussels. But he appears far more interested in maintaining as much of the old repressive order as he can get away with. That is unacceptable to Egypt’s people, and it should be unacceptable to Egypt’s Western supporters.
President Obama said the right things last week when he demanded that democratic change in Egypt start “now.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent statements that change would “take some time” have taken the pressure off. Mr. Obama needs to regain his voice and press Mr. Suleiman to either begin a serious process of reform or get out of the way.
The protesters have won some important concessions. They forced Mr. Mubarak to forsake re-election. Mr. Mubarak’s son and Mr. Suleiman, a former intelligence chief, also will not run. On Saturday, the government opened a dialogue with the opposition — including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
More reform was promised, but it has been hard to take that seriously after Mr. Mubarak gave himself the sole power to appoint a panel to recommend constitutional amendments.
And while Mr. Suleiman was conciliatory in the early days of the protests, his recent public statements have been chilling. He said he does not believe it is time to lift the three-decade-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. Most alarming, he said the country’s “culture” is not yet ready for democracy.
Mr. Suleiman is not going to do what’s needed on his own. So the United States and its allies will have to lay down a clear list of steps that are the minimum for holding a credible vote this year and building a democracy.
The Egyptian government cannot choose which reforms to dole out when. Opposition leaders must participate in all aspects of the reform process. The emergency law must be lifted and Egyptians guaranteed freedom of speech and association. All detained protesters must be freed and the government-allied forces who viciously attacked demonstrators last week must be prosecuted.
The government and the Opposition need to jointly set a date for elections and establish an independent commission to oversee the process. Egyptian and international monitors will need to observe the vote and the count. The government and Opposition will need to work together to establish criteria for registering parties and candidates and ensure that all have access to the news media.
Then the full debate over Egypt’s future can take place and the Egyptian people can decide.