Mubarak Resigns (For Real)

by Charlie Szrom

Egyptian state TV has announced that Hosni Mubarak has resigned from the presidency. The celebrations that began yesterday when news of the impending resignation circulated can now begin anew. Analysis of the post-Mubarak era should also restart, as much work remains to be done and critical U.S. national-security interests remain in limbo. It is worth cheering the exit of an autocrat, but not for too long. The people in the streets of Egypt have much work to do to ensure that a military regime or radical Islamist forces do not dash their democratic aspirations. Washington must work to ensure that the forces favoring real democracy — the kind that follows majority rule with true respect for minority rights — rises in Egypt. Any new Egyptian government must also respect the peace treaty with Israel, the blockade of Gaza, and the right of military and commercial ships to pass through the Suez Canal.

The confusion of the last 18 or so hours should not blur the lessons the administration must learn from its handling of the crisis thus far. As I wrote yesterday on the Corner:

Instead of taking a strong position early on and attempting to drive events and coverage, the administration let itself become hostage to the daily news cycle. The administration’s spokespersons reacted to events instead of establishing a clear position and defending it… The administration has not displayed the necessary discipline and grasp of the situation on the ground thus far. Here’s hoping it can overcome its mistakes, as U.S. national security now depends on the administration working overtime to bolster freedom and American interests in Egypt.

Anti-American forces will try to turn the situation to their advantage. They know that in the long term, a free Middle East undercuts supporters of terrorist groups and Islamist autocracy. Iran has shown through its rhetoric thus far its intent to increase its influence in Egypt, although it is likely to be unsuccessful — not the least because of prevailing popular opposition to Iran in Egypt and rejections from a wide range of Egyptians in the past few days of Iran’s latest overtures. The Muslim Brotherhood has barely played even a supporting role in the protests, but it will attempt to expand its power in coming months. It represents a more serious threat than Iran, due to its established presence on the ground.

The credit for the demonstrations should likely go to a series of student, youth, and Internet-based groups that organized over the last several years. The most prominent of these was perhaps the April 6 Youth Movement, named for its first major protest on April 6, 2008. U.S. policymakers now face the difficult task of working with groups like the April 6 Movement or individuals such as Wael Ghonim who might be somewhat skeptical of the U.S., given its passive and confused policy during the weeks of protests.

While supporting the transition to a democratic government, the U.S. should not engage in picking winners. Artificially elevating opposition leaders now will only reinforce Egyptian views that the U.S. is trying to again handpick the rulers of Egypt. The U.S. role should be to ensure a smooth transition to elections in the not-too-distant term while tempering the rise of groups or individuals opposed to U.S. national-security interests (such as the Muslim Brotherhood). The eight months until the September elections should allow groups that have previously not been allowed to participate in the Egyptian democratic polity a reasonable amount of time to organize. It may be enough time for some independent media organizations to fuel a freer press or for established media organizations to take on new independence in their coverage.

As President Obama said yesterday, we truly are witnessing history happen in Egypt. The U.S., however, will need to be a champion of freedom, not just a witness to events, in the coming months.

Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.