Egypt's challenge: Becoming a democracy

President Barack Obama welcomed the peaceful transition of power in Egypt with the resignation of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. (Feb. 11)
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 12:00 AM

THE JUBILANT, flag-waving crowds pouring through the center of Cairo on Friday recalled scenes from other parts of the world during the past 30 years - Manila in 1986; Prague in 1989; Jakarta in 1998. As people did in those countries, Egyptians turned out en masse, and mostly peacefully, to demand not just a change of government but a democratic revolution. In doing so, they raised the momentous prospect that political freedom would spread, at last, to the region of the world that lacks it, and needs it, the most.

Egypt's revolution could forever transform the Arab world's most populous country, end decades of stagnation and reshape a region where autocracy has nourished extremism and terrorism. But it is not yet complete; in some ways, it has barely begun. Friday brought not just the triumph of people power, but also a military coup. Egypt's supreme military council, which assumed power from President Hosni Mubarak, has yet to spell out its plans, though one of its terse statements said that it supported a "democratic society."

In a statement celebrating the Egyptian people's triumph, President Obama rightly warned that "this is not the end of Egypt's transition. It is a beginning. . . . many questions remain unanswered." Whether Egypt moves toward genuine democracy, or lapses back toward authoritarianism or even Islamic fundamentalism, will depend mostly on the same Egyptians who filled the streets Friday.

But the United States and other Western countries also have a vital role to play. They can begin by pressing the military command not to attempt to dominate the transition - as Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman sought to do - but to invite representatives of all political movements to join negotiations to create a coalition government. That administration could decide on a road map to democracy and elections. The process should be certain but not rushed, which means the current constitution probably must be set aside. U.S. aims should include helping the centrist secular movements suppressed by Mr. Mubarak to fully organize themselves, assisting in the establishment of independent authorities to stage and monitor the elections, and encouraging the opening of the state media to all sides.

Egypt will need help restarting and then reforming its economy to move from Mr. Mubarak's crony capitalism to a true free market. It might also need cover with neighboring governments, some of which will be frightened by the power of the people's movement they have just witnessed. The U.S. message to Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies, as well as to Israel, should be that it is better to begin preparing for a new and more democratic Middle East - and not only in Egypt.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company