Events rapidly unfolding in Egypt may signal that this is President Mubarak’s hour of truth. The riots taking place in Cairo, where some policemen took off their uniforms and joined the protesters, indicate that President Mubarak may be unable to stand the pressure of long-contained popular demands.
Although Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the protests were the work of “instigators” led by the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrators come from all social and political classes. This is, perhaps, the clearest demonstration of people’s power in decades in Egypt. Confronted with these massive popular demonstrations, the Interior Ministry stated that “No provocative movements or protest gatherings or organizing marches or demonstrations will be allowed.”
For the U.S., that has been backing the Mubarak government since it assumed power in 1981, this is a difficult situation to confront. The U.S. has provided military aid to Egypt to the tune of 1.5 billion per year. As a consequence, the U.S. has more leverage than any other government in what is happening now in Egypt.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially said that the Mubarak government was stable, she then stated that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the violent crackdown on demonstrators and asked the Egyptian government to respect the protesters’ rights to free expression. “As a partner, we strongly believe that the Egyptian government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reforms,” said Clinton at the State Department.
Talking to “Fox News on Sunday,” as if anticipating what may really happen in Egypt Secretary Clinton stated, “We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills the void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government.” Since President Mubarak will clearly not be the leader of such a government it seems clear that Secretary Clinton is anticipating a change of government.
At the same time, there is concern that more radical elements may be gaining ground in the country, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. So far, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been playing a cautious role, and has even asked Mr. ElBaradei to negotiate on behalf of the protesters. This should allay Mrs. Clinton's fears when she stated that the U.S. wants to avoid a situation that would allow “radicals, extremists, violent elements to take over.”
President Mubarak’s TV address to the nation in which he said that he had dismissed his cabinet but that he will remain in power, as well as his promise of social, political and economic reforms didn’t quell people’s demands for a complete overhaul of the government. People have continued defying the government and asking for Mr. Mubarak to step down, a step Mr. ElBaradei said is not negotiable.
The harsh repression by the Egyptian police may be delaying the inevitable: Mr. Mubarak should resign. Talks now being conducted between Mubarak and the military are critical for Egypt’s future.
The best role for the military to play would be to withdraw its support for Mr. Mubarak and replace him with a transitional government which could include Mr. ElBaradei or be led by him. Such a government should call for elections in six months to allow the country to return to a normal life.
President Obama has told Mr. Mubarak that the government should refrain from using violence against peaceful demonstrators and allow for free expression of ideas. Perhaps this is a diplomatic way of telling Mr. Mubarak that it is time to go.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.