Will Obama recognize Egypt's turning point and get on board?
ON TUESDAY, scores of Egyptians -- most of them young and many of them women -- turned up on the streets of Cairo to press for peaceful political reform. They were members of the 6th of April movement and other groups that have joined a National Front for Change led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Their demands are simple, and reasonable: an end to the emergency laws that prevent political organizing and freedom of assembly; independent monitoring of parliamentary elections this year; and changes in the Egyptian constitution that would allow a genuinely free contest in next year's presidential election.
The response of Egypt's authoritarian regime was also simple: riot police, truncheons and plainclothes thugs. The young protesters were literally beaten into submission. More than 90 were thrown into trucks and hauled away to police stations; criminal charges are being pressed against 33.
This is the standard response of Egypt's strongman, Hosni Mubarak, to anyone in his country who suggests even small steps toward liberal democracy. With the exception of one brief period during the administration of George W. Bush, the repression has been tolerated by U.S. presidents and by Congress, which annually delivers billions in economic and military aid to Mr. Mubarak's regime.
This status quo is no longer sustainable. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have rallied behind Mr. ElBaradei, who has been touring the country to make the case for peaceful change. Facebook groups supporting his movement have more active members than does the ruling party. At 81, Mr. Mubarak appears to be in failing health; he recently underwent surgery in Germany. His clumsy project to groom his son Gamal to succeed him is floundering -- the idea is unpopular among supporters of the regime, not to mention the public.
In short, Egypt's incipient instability and the three elections it has scheduled in the next 18 months present both a major challenge and a precious opportunity for the Obama administration. As a bipartisan "working group on Egypt" said in a letter delivered this week to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, "Egypt is at a critical turning point . . . . There is now an opportunity to promote gradual, responsible democratic reform." The group, which includes Robert Kagan, Thomas Carothers and Michele Dunne, all of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as experts from six other institutions, said that the administration should be "raising with the Egyptian government -- privately, but at the highest level -- the U.S. hope and expectation that Egypt will hold genuinely competitive elections."
The Obama administration contends that it is doing just this. But President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have also devoted a lot of high-profile time and energy to stroking Mr. Mubarak, out of a conviction that strained relations during the Bush administration needed to be repaired. The ties have been mended and the private messages allegedly delivered -- but Egypt, as the working group's letter notes, is "sliding backward into increased authoritarianism." It's time for the administration to recognize that its approach is not working -- and that it cannot afford to squander this moment of opportunity.