After 18 days, Egypt’s dedicated and undaunted demonstrators succeeded in their single goal: Their dictatorial president, Hosni Mubarak, is gone after 30 years in power.
His concessions as he sought to cling to office became increasingly desperate: He pledged he wouldn’t run for another term; he pledged his son wouldn’t run to succeed him; he pledged there would be no reprisals if the demonstrators dispersed; he replaced his prime minister and Cabinet; he gave government workers a 5 percent raise; he handed over his powers to the vice president.
FINALLY, MUBARAK left town, leaving it to Vice President Omar Suleiman to announce his abrupt abdication.
The demonstrators, who had gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, had succeeded in their goal; unfortunately, it was also their only goal. Unanswered amid their wild celebrations is that most basic of questions: What next?
Ideally, the answer to that would be free and fair elections leading to the establishment of a democracy committed to basic human rights, and this, in fact, is U.S. policy. Getting there, however, is likely to be a long, uncertain and unpredictable process.
Upon resigning, Mubarak turned over responsibility for running the country, presumably on an interim basis, to the Armed Forces Supreme Council, headed by the defense minister. Egypt is used to military rule; that’s one of its problems. Since the military ousted a king in 1952, Egypt has had only three rulers, all of them, including Mubarak, military officers, all of them autocratic.
For decades, the government has suppressed opposition political parties and pro-democracy groups. There are few institutions in place that are vital to democracy — vibrant political parties, access to broadcast media, campaign laws and an independent judiciary. For 30 years, Mubarak ruled by emergency decree. Repealing that emergency law will be an early test of the new Egypt.
THE OUTLAWED Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best-organized opposition group, but it was only a feeble player in the demonstrations that were almost pointedly non-Islamic. Frequently mentioned as a possible president is Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, but he spent most of his career as a U.S. diplomat outside of Egypt. The leaders of the mass protest, as much as a spontaneous mass outburst can said to be led, are young, computer-savvy liberal activists, the best-known of them, Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive.
Finally, there is the tough task of dismantling a dictatorship — repealing repressive laws, freeing political prisoners, cleaning up a corrupt and brutal police apparatus, heading off a cycle of reprisals against the old regime, retrieving assets, said to be $20 billion, stashed overseas by the Mubaraks.
The demonstrators’ inspiring unity, enthusiasm and nonviolence hold so much promise for the future. Mubarak is finally gone, but for Egypt his departure is only a start.