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Egypt’s messy change

As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demonstrate to demand democracy, the country’s leaders are still trying to manage the process from above rather than negotiate a transition with opposition forces.

President Hosni Mubarak has meted out a series of half- measures so far: appointing a vice president and new cabinet, saying that he will not stand for election when his present term ends in September, and promising to carry out some limited political reforms. These are exactly the kind of top-down, carefully managed changes that the United States has long advocated in the Middle East.

But the managed reform approach is likely to fail. Limited political reforms dictated by the Egyptian government, with minimal consultation with civil society or opposition forces, would have been welcomed a few years ago. Not now. Demonstrators and the opposition groups seeking to represent them have tasted power and will now insist on being part of the decision making.

The difficult question today is who can actually negotiate this transition? On the government side, Mubarak clearly will be an unacceptable interlocutor for the opposition. It is unknown whether newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman can do the task; he seems to have a relatively clean reputation with the Egyptian public, but many in the opposition object to him because of his long tenure as director of intelligence.

Opposition groups are calling for all new cabinet members to be replaced by a national unity government that would include members of the judiciary and representatives of various political forces. 

Opponents of the government are also having difficulty coming together. An opposition committee includes representatives from major organized political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Wafd Party, National Association for Change, April 6 youth movement, and Ghad Party. And Mohamed ElBaradei has stepped forward as someone empowered to speak on behalf of these groups.

But his role is somewhat contested within the committee and it is unclear whether this coalition can truly represent or control the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators now on the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. Youth organizations including April 6 initiated the original Jan. 25 demonstration that started the uprising. Now events have snowballed to the extent that no-one is clearly in control.

Still, whatever remains of the government — at a minimum, the military — will need to negotiate with someone to get Egyptians off the streets and back to their homes and jobs. For now, ElBaradei and his coalition have the best shot at representing them and translating their demands into a reasonable agenda.

The government should cut its losses and get down to work immediately. The longer demonstrators remain in the streets, the more extreme their demands will become.

The Obama administration has been tepid in its support for democratization in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and now has to play catch-up.

The U.S. response to the outbreak of protests was initially inadequate. Some of the rhetoric used by the Obama administration in the first few days was out of touch with reality. U.S. officials were essentially saying Egypt was stable and the government was responding to the demands of its people. This wasn’t the case.

Then the Obama administration started talking about reform, but the time for reform was years ago.

The U.S. has gradually been improving its rhetoric and position, and getting closer to reality. It is in a difficult situation. The Obama administration is concerned that any new Egyptian leader will be inclined to cool relations with both the U.S. and Israel. 

On the other hand, the damage to U.S. interests will only increase if it is seen as propping up Mubarak. The gap between Mubarak and the Egyptian people, which has been expanding for a decade, has now grown so wide that it isn’t possible for the U.S. to stand on both sides. The Obama administration needs to push for change in Egypt.

The U.S. should encourage a quick and peaceful end to this crisis and then do what it can to support the establishment of a new democracy in Egypt.

Is the way forward uncertain and fraught with risks for Egyptians and the U.S.? Yes, it is. But change — messy change from the grassroots up, rather than tidy reforms from the government down — is now under way. The U.S. can’t stop it and would only damage its interests further by trying.

Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin.