Egypt's two futures: Brutality and false reforms, or democracy

Friday, February 4, 2011; 8:24 PM

OVER THE past few days the world has seen a vivid portrait of the two sides in Egypt's crisis. There has been the orchestrated brutality and cynical facade of compromise presented by the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who while clinging to his office until September is trying to destroy the opposition and ensure the perpetuation of 50 years of autocracy. In Cairo's Tahrir Square and in other plazas around the country is the alternative: millions of mostly secular and middle-class citizens, led by the young, who seek genuine democracy and whose regular chant is "we are peaceful."

What the week's events have shown is that Egypt is not facing a simple choice between the departure of Mr. Mubarak in September and his immediate resignation. In fact the two sides offer very different futures for Egypt. One is a continuation of the present regime, with minimal concessions to opponents. The other is a new, more liberal Egypt, one that will have a chance to modernize its economy and its political system and to introduce a desperately needed era of reform in the Arab Middle East.

Mr. Mubarak now claims that he will oversee a political transition. But the reality is this: Since Wednesday, at least 11 people have been killed in Cairo clashes started by gangs of regime thugs, many of whom carried ID cards from the police or the ruling party. Western journalists have been attacked or detained, and many opposition activists have been arrested by military police.

Mr. Mubarak and his newly appointed vice president and prime minister, meanwhile, have waged a disinformation campaign aimed at splitting the opposition and deterring the United States and other governments from taking sides. They profess surprise at the violence their forces orchestrated; call on the demonstrators to go home; and threaten "chaos" if Mr. Mubarak is forced to leave before September. The shallowness of their promises is revealed in their claims that talks with the opposition can be wrapped up in days and constitutional changes limited to two articles about the president's election and term.

In fact, as Egyptian activists Hossam Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty make clear on the opposite page, considerably more reform is needed for a democratic election, including the lifting of the emergency law and restrictions on political parties, the reinstatement of independent election monitoring by judges, and the opening of state media to opposition voices. The failure of Mr. Mubarak and his aides to mention such steps reveals their real ambition, which is to install a successor in another rigged process.

Despite the brutality the opposition has suffered, its platform remains moderate. Its leaders seek the replacement of Mr. Mubarak with a transitional administration that could include figures from the current regime. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood so far has taken a back seat in the movement, and there are no demands to rupture relations with Israel, much less the United States.

Friday's massive demonstrations showed that this democratic movement is not yielding to the regime's ruthlessness. It is willing to share power with the army and the regime but not to accept a mix of phony reforms and repression aimed at preventing the emergence of a democracy. The United States has been trying to avoid taking sides in this standoff. On Friday, President Obama repeated his position that a political transition "must begin now" but that it was up to Egyptians; he did not rule out Mr. Mubarak leading it. But there is really only one side that represents U.S. values and interests - and it can be found in Tahrir Square.

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