Egyptians earned their celebration in Tahrir Square on Friday (February 11, 2011). The resignation of President Hosni Mubarak is a stunning accomplishment for the country’s courageous youth-led opposition. In fewer than three weeks, they forced a largely peaceful end to his 30-year autocracy.
Even as we cheered with them, we felt anxiety about the news that a council of military leaders will now run the country. In a brief statement issued Friday (February 11, 2011), army leaders talked of working to transfer authority to a “free democratic community.” But they did not say how they would do that or when.
It would be a tragedy — and a recipe for more upheaval — if the army misreads this historic moment. Egyptians want democracy. They do not want to trade one repressive system for another.
The whole country must now turn to the arduous work of building a new democratic order to replace the old authoritarian one. It will require the same vigilance, determination and discipline the protesters displayed during their days and nights in the square.
The United States and other democratic states must be ready to now press for full democratic change. Washington, which provides $1.5 billion in military and economic aid annually to Egypt, must use all of its personal ties and all of that leverage to ensure that this period of military control is as brief as possible.
In its Friday (February 11) statement, the army said the draconian state of Emergency would be lifted “as soon as the current circumstances are over” — that was far too open-ended for our comfort. The statement also promised free and fair elections — again without specifying a timetable.
The army is the country’s most powerful institution and fills its ranks by conscription, so all Egyptians have some personal connection. Its behavior during the uprising has earned it considerable popular good will. On Friday (Feb 11), some protesters chanted, “The people and the army are one hand!”
Days ago, it ruled out firing on peaceful demonstrations. Despite reports by human rights workers that hundreds of Egyptians were detained, many protesters still feel the army protected them from even worse abuse by security police.
We don’t yet know the full tale of the army’s role in finally getting Mr. Mubarak to leave, particularly after Thursday’s (Feb 10) rambling performance. For now, at least, most Egyptians are giving them credit for that, too.
The cheering won’t last long if the military council does not quickly follow through on its pledges. There are some basic steps that it can and must take immediately — starting with lifting the Emergency law and guaranteeing all Egyptians the right of free speech, due process and assembly. There can be no temporizing or suggestions that the protesters must first go home.
The council also needs to quickly reach out to the opposition and set up working groups to jointly set a date for presidential elections. Egypt will also need an independent commission to oversee the process.
There will have to be an agreement on the criteria for registering parties and candidates as well as assurances that all have the resources and access to state-run media needed to run a robust political campaign. Egyptian and international monitors will need to observe the vote and the count.
None of these will come easily, and some setbacks are certain. But Egyptians have finally won a chance at creating a free and just society. We can think of no better rebuttal to Osama bin Laden and other extremists. The Egyptian protesters inspire us all. They will need all of our support.