Egypt’s beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak announced tonight in a televised speech that he refuses to step down, but he promised to launch an investigation to hold officials of his regime accountable for fomenting violence against protesters since the political turmoil began on January 25. Mubarak promised that he would transfer some undefined leadership responsibilities to his Vice President, Omar Suleiman. He also proclaimed his love for Egypt and promised that “I will not leave it until I am buried in the ground.”
Mubarak failed to satisfy the tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators who have thronged Cairo for 17 straight days calling for the ouster of his unpopular regime. Earlier in the day the demonstrators had chanted: “Civil, civil, not military!” as they heard reports that Mubarak might pass authority to a military government. After hearing the speech, the crowd’s mood turned from jubilation to anger, and they repeatedly roared “Get out!”
During the course of the day, the protesters in Tahrir (Liberation) Square were bolstered by an outpouring of support from striking workers, including doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, and employees of companies that perform services related to Egypt’s Suez Canal.
The tidal wave of support for the protesters now has further energized the opposition and could create an explosive situation if the army seeks to restore order. If violence escalates, the army would be discredited as a stabilizing force, which would greatly undermine the prospects for a transition to a stable democracy.
President Mubarak has put the army in a very difficult position. It must now choose to obey the commander-in-chief or side with the opposition, which appears to have much greater support than does the regime. Washington should work quietly behind the scenes with the leadership of the army, the only institution capable of stabilizing Egypt and guiding it to become a genuine democracy. The goal should be to preserve the army as a stabilizing influence by nudging it to ease Mubarak out of office and calm the situation before an explosion of violence creates a much more revolutionary situation in which extremist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood could flourish.
The Obama Administration should patiently seek to advance freedom and stability in Egypt through a gradual transition to a more representative government that gives the Muslim Brotherhood the smallest possible opportunity to hijack the reform process. To this end, Washington should leverage its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Cairo to ensure the emergence of a government that respects the freedom and human rights of its own citizens, complies with Egypt’s international obligations to fight terrorism, and carries out its legal obligations under Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The worst possible outcome of the present crisis would be to replace President Mubarak’s authoritarian regime with a the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a totalitarian Islamist agenda. This would ultimately be a disaster for freedom in Egypt as well as for American interests in Egypt and the wider Middle East.
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