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Egypt's Real Debates Begin

Author: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
March 31, 2011

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CAIRO – What strikes the visitor to post-Mubarak Egypt is the profound sense of uncertainty about just about everything. Whereas Mubarak's Egypt was consumed by sclerotic stability and the need for order, today's Egypt is rife with ambiguity and self-examination. It is as if Egyptians have just regained consciousness after a long stupor.

They have many, many, questions, and very few answers. Should parliamentary elections precede or follow the presidential vote, and when should these take place? What does the recent constitutional referendum really mean? Where has Omar Suleiman, the once-feared head of intelligence, gone? Does it even matter? These are but a few of the questions now on the table--questions that Egyptians never faced before because they didn't have to. Now they do.

While debating issues large and small, usually confident Egyptians are approaching them with a degree of tentativeness, recognizing that their views so far are impressionistic and open to change and refinement.

This is all part of the process of taking ownership over their country and their fate. Egyptians share a sense of accomplishment in having removed Mubarak and put the country on a new path toward new elections and a new constitution. And they are relieved that events have so far unfolded largely peacefully. This is no small accomplishment.

There nonetheless remains ample anxiety about the future. Egyptians know that they are just at the beginning of a bumpy ride, and that popular expectations far exceed what is likely to be achieved. Moreover, well-organized opportunists seek openings to hijack the revolution away from democracy or the development of genuine liberal institutions.

What is both exciting and frightening is that as Egyptians begin to flex their political debating muscles in earnest, the answers they will come up with are by no means predetermined. The marketplace for political ideas has just opened. They are eager to start browsing immediately, but people aren't sure they want to put their money down yet. They need to see more, talk more, debate more.

This is a wholly Egyptian struggle. The demonstrators who took to Tahrir Square focused entirely on domestic concerns. Absent were chants against America, Israel, or the West. Egyptians are pleased that the United States welcomed Mubarak's departure but did not interject itself into the intra-Egyptian debate.

Already, power has shifted away from the unified Facebook crowd that led the uprising in Tahrir Square as the unity of their effort has become diffused. New parties and organizations are sprouting daily. This has given greater relative strength to the older and better-established Muslim Brotherhood and ancient regime survivors. This is not surprising, given that the one thing that united the protestors was their antipathy toward the old regime. Their demands have diversified and their focus blurred as new parties and alliances proliferate. Some want an elongated transition to allow more time for parties to organize and mature. Others believe that the revolution's momentum should be maintained by rapid elections, arguing that too much time is required for maturation and that lost momentum would only benefit those who want to halt the move to democracy.

It is precisely because Egyptians are keen to debate their future and make it their own that the United States and other outsiders should tread lightly. What happens in Egypt, home to one-quarter of the Arab world and once again its intellectual hub, will have a dramatic demonstration effect on the rest of the region. The Arab world is watching.

That does not mean that the United States does not also have an interest in this Egyptian debate. Indeed, Washington's primary goal should be to see the debate continue and for hard questions to be confronted soon, lest Egyptians lose enthusiasm for the liberal democracy they have called for. Stability must be ensured, and Egypt's economy must be sufficiently robust so that anti-democratic populists don't seize upon worsening conditions to hijack the gains that have been made.

The United States should be prepared to help--financially, politically, and with advice, if asked. The Egyptian army--the one institution enjoying popular legitimacy within the country--should be quietly encouraged by its U.S. counterparts to ensure respect for basic human rights and the rule of law as Egypt navigates its transition.

The recent uprising in Cairo provides a tremendous opportunity for Egyptians to devise their own way to democracy. But in doing so, outside parties must be mindful that the opportunity created in Tahrir Square will be lost unless Egyptians themselves are allowed to devise their own responses to their new challenges.

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