Can change really take place while Hosni Mubarak remains in office?
HAD EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak announced two weeks ago what he said on Tuesday night - that he would not run for reelection and would accept constitutional amendments to make a presidential election more democratic - he might have been hailed for delivering a political breakthrough in his long-stagnant country. As it was, with hundreds of thousands of enraged protestors in the streets of Cairo and other cities, his concessions were unlikely to restore order.
Mr. Mubarak's attempt to remain in office until next September, and to oversee the election of his successor, will mean days if not months more of turmoil in Egypt. The bulk of the protestors seek his immediate removal, as does the opposition coalition that has formed to represent them. That alliance is coalescing around a moderate platform calling for a transitional government and the organization of free and fair elections. But if Mr. Mubarak tries to hold on, it could embrace more radical demands or lose influence to extremists.
As he has so often in his 29-year-rule, Mr. Mubarak claimed Egyptians had a choice between "stability and chaos." In fact the "stability" he is promoting, a continuance of his regime for seven more months, will very likely lead to chaos. It will impede the transition to real democracy that Egyptian opposition leaders and the Obama administration have been calling for. None can reasonably believe that Mr. Mubarak, who has been rigging Egyptian elections for three decades, will now oversee one that is legitimate. Instead he is likely to resist the extensive changes needed in the political system and to manipulate the process so that his own party remains in power.
That party and the Egyptian Army should be part of any peaceful transition. Opposition leaders have indicated that they are ready to negotiate with newly named vice president Omar Suleiman; perhaps a "round table," such as those that arranged the introduction of democracy in Poland and other former communist countries, could be initiated. But opposition leaders rightly say the precondition is Mr. Mubarak's departure from office.
Slow and fumbling in its response to the Egyptian crisis, the Obama administration can count some positive developments in recent days. The Egyptian Army has not used force against demonstrators, and Mr. Mubarak at least agreed not to be a candidate for reelection - a decision reportedly urged by a special envoy who met him this week. But President Obama's response to Mr. Mubarak's statement was ambiguous. He said he had told the Egyptian president in a phone call that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and must begin now" - but he did not object to the strongman's plan to remain in office. Like Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Obama did not go far enough.