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With help from the U.S., Egypt can gain a republic

By David Ignatius
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 8:00 PM

Wael Ghonim, the charismatic young Google executive who helped launch the protests in Tahrir Square, sounded the trumpet in a first Twitter message Thursday afternoon: "Mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians." But he soon sent another message urging protesters to wait for official news - and when President Hosni Mubarak finally made his speech late Thursday, it shattered protesters' hopes for a quick transition.

The confusing denouement, coming after hours of predictions that Mubarak would announce his resignation, showed that the struggle for the future of Egypt is just beginning, and the next stage is one where the United States truly can help.

Mubarak's stubborn speech illustrated what the Obama administration has been wrangling with for two weeks with its backstage maneuvering. Mubarak is a man who just doesn't get the message.

Changing Egypt's government remains a challenge for Egyptians, not Americans. But we can help them get started with the tasks ahead. One way or another, Mubarak will be gone soon. And the diffuse opposition movement must begin to help rewrite Egypt's constitution and election laws, rebuild a shaken economy and restore stability after the heady binge of revolution.

The best thing that can be said about the Tahrir Square uprising is that it is truly being "made in Egypt." President Obama got hammered at home for not trying to dictate the outcome, but he was right in his initial instinct that America can influence events best when it does so quietly, behind the scenes. The problem is that quiet pressure on Mubarak hasn't worked.

The White House has been trying to have it both ways, with officials making confusing statements every few hours - inserting America in the crisis and at the same time insisting that it is a matter for Egyptians to resolve. This comes across as a parody of pragmatism - a sense that Washington would accept whatever worked.

Listening to the babbling official voices in Washington dispensing advice to Egypt over the past two weeks, my strongest feeling was: Just shut up.

Now America doesn't have to be quite so reticent. The good guys need help in planning for the future, of a kind that the United States and its allies uniquely can provide. I hope Washington will see this as a moment like the Marshall Plan in 1947 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Arab world is at an inflection point: If the Egyptians can make a transition to a strong, secure and prosperous democracy, it will affect the region for decades.

The first challenge is economic. Egypt has pushed economic growth to an average of about 5 percent, but that's not good enough to achieve "escape velocity" from poverty and stagnation. With more than half of its population under the age of 25, Egypt needs growth approaching that of India or China. "Calculations indicate that growth rates of 6-7 percent on a sustainable basis are needed in order to provide jobs for new entrants and to reduce unemployment," writes economist George T. Abed of the Institute of International Finance.

The Tahrir protests may have exhilarated Egyptian Internet moguls, but they have been bad for business. Capital has been fleeing the country, and spreads on Egyptian debt have widened sharply. U.S. economic and financial support, post-crisis, can help restore confidence.

A second challenge will be the simple mechanics of democratic elections. This is an area where U.S. and European organizations have deep experience, after aiding the democratization of Eastern Europe. When the Egyptians ask for help, we should make a massive effort.

A final worry is security. We know from history how vulnerable countries can be in months following a revolutionary change. Provocateurs will try to destabilize the transition and hijack the process of change. Today's optimism could be undone by a wave of car bombings, say, or kidnappings of foreigners of the sort that shut down Beirut and Baghdad. Egypt is lucky to have a strong military that the protesters see as an ally.

The best safeguard against Muslim terrorists, hopefully, will be the sleeping giant that is the Muslim Brotherhood. Members of this group have become sharply critical of al-Qaeda in recent years, which gives reason for hope. The Brotherhood, for better or worse, has won a seat at Egypt's governing table. The formula for success, as the protesters keep repeating, is two words: No violence.

Benjamin Franklin famously answered a question about what had been accomplished at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, "A republic, if you can keep it." King George III (meaning Mubarak) may be holding on. But he won't last. America should do everything it can, publicly and privately, to help the protesters gain their new republic.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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