One of the biggest questions Egypt faces, if it is to embark on a meaningful process of democratic transition, is who will oversee the required legislative, constitutional, and institutional reforms. In other words, how is it possible to create a legitimate, rights-respecting government out of the discredited status quo?
Could the current National Democratic Party-dominated parliament -- itself the product of rigged elections -- really be counted on to amend the constitution and change laws that have allowed the party to exclude other voices? Could a reconfigured version of the current government, delegitimized by decades of repression, torture and emergency rule, credibly supervise the police and other government agencies in providing security during elections?
Some answers might be found in Peru, which successfully navigated a similar transition not too long ago. After the collapse of President Alberto Fujimori's mafia-like, authoritarian government in 2000, an interim government led by the president of Congress, Valentín Paniagua, not only oversaw new elections that were widely viewed as free and fair, but also took major steps to re-establish the rule of law and respect for human rights in the country.
The interim government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought to light thousands of abuses against civilians during the country's internal armed conflict. It also established an office for an independent anti-corruption prosecutor, which exposed the workings of the Fujimori government and brought many of the worst offenders -- including, years later, Fujimori himself -- to account, in trials that were generally considered fair. After years of systematic corruption, ruling party control of state institutions, and human rights violations, Peru made a clean break with the repression of the past and started a new chapter.
But this successful outcome was far from certain at first. It was only possible because of two key factors: First, the total discrediting of the previous leadership. And second, the independence and public legitimacy of the interim government.
The immediate trigger for Fujimori's fall was a huge corruption scandal, in which videotapes surfaced of his close adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing an opposition congressman to switch to Fujimori's side. The scandal came on the heels of large protests over what were widely perceived as fraudulent elections in 2000, as well as increasing public dissatisfaction with the Fujimori government's corrupt infiltration of every state institution, including the Congress, military and the judiciary, as well as much of the media. Many of his cronies were exposed in bribe-taking schemes. So by the time Fujimori fled, they had also been completely discredited in the eyes of the public.
The public rejection extended to Fujimori's hand-picked vice-president, who decided to step down after Fujimori's departure. The US Ambassador to Peru at the time, John Hamilton, said later that he encouraged the vice-president to step aside, even though the United States had been linked to Montesinos and lost much public credibility by backing Fujimori until the last minute.
With Fujimori's entire network of collaborators suddenly falling apart, the path was clear for Paniagua, next in the chain of succession, to make the necessary changes. Peru was fortunate in that the public and all political parties perceived Paniagua as independent, inclusive and honest. He increased public confidence by staffing his government with highly respected figures, such as Javier Pérez de Cuellar, the Peruvian former secretary-general of the United Nations, prominent civil society leaders who had long criticized the Fujimori government, and respected academics. Paniagua also refused to run for president. Perhaps most important: the members of the interim government were clearly committed to making human rights and the rule of law a top priority, above and beyond partisan interests.
Is a similar path possible in Egypt? That's not yet clear. While Mubarak and the NDP appear to be thoroughly discredited in the public eye, they are clinging to power. And the official chain of succession appears to be completely in their hands. If the transition is led by Mubarak, or those close to him who have a stake in perpetuating the status quo, the way forward will be much trickier, a constant struggle between those calling for meaningful change and those who would seek to undermine it.
But the events of last few days suggest that Egypt does have many independent voices, willing and ready to come together to pursue a common cause. And should a truly independent interim government -- one that is serious about making Egypt a country that respects its citizens' rights -- lead the way forward, Egypt's democratic transition may have a real chance at success.
Maria McFarland is deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch.