No Quick Solutions for Egypt

02/07/2011 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You Americans always want quick solutions," Hosni Mubarak once told me during an interview in Cairo. "But," he added quickly, "in this part of the world there are no quick solutions; only accommodations."

Mubarak's words ring as true today as they did when Egypt's embattled president uttered them nearly 20 years ago.

Tahrir Square's heroic and dramatic demands for democratic change in Egypt have resounded around the world. But anyone who thinks that Cairo's massive calls for freedom can lead to a rapid democratization of Egypt is dangerously naive.

For starters, outside of Mubarak's own authoritarian circle, there are no Egyptian political leaders anywhere near capable of taking the helm immediately. Mohammed ElBaradei, the nuclear diplomat who's been touted as a successor, says he doesn't even want the job. Amr Moussa, the self-promoting head of the Arab League, says he's available, but is known better for his bluster than for his democratic acumen. In fact, there are no opposition political leaders strong enough to unite the nation and win the support of the all-powerful million man Egyptian army. Indeed, with the exception of the undemocratic Muslim Brotherhood (and who in their right mind wants them in leadership?), there is not one Egyptian political party with an apparatus capable of taking control of a truly democratic Egypt or a government.

The harsh historic fact is that during its five thousand of years of existence, Egypt has never known anything close to democracy. In our own time, the Arab world's most important nation moved from a ridiculously corrupt kingdom ruled by a perverse monarch to a military revolutionary dictatorship led by a series of heavy handed army officers - none of whom brooked opposition.

Nor, for that matter, is there evidence of real democracy anywhere else in the Mideast's Muslim world. Iran's Islamofascist "republic" brutally crushes anyone who dares seek democratic reform. Syria has remained clenched in the tight fist of the same dictatorial family for 40 years, a clan that has not hesitated to use Syria's army to murder tens of thousands of people who disagreed with it. Jordan's smiling king and beautiful queen enjoy some degree of public popularity. But neither they nor the Royal Hashemite security service the king controls are prepared to yield any real democratic political power. As for the Palestinians, the West Bank's Palestinian Authority and Gaza's Hamas are hardly renowned for political freedom. Qadhafi's Libya? Algeria? Yemen? Sudan? Lebanon? Even newly "liberated" Tunisia is still in dangerous flux.

So what's Egypt's chance now for positive "accommodation"?

In my view, the best hope lies in what is already happening: a concerted transfer of presidential power from Mubarak to a trio consisting of his Vice President Omar Suleiman, the Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi, and retired General Ahmed Shafiq, the newly appointed Prime Minister. These are the men who seem to be calling most of the shots - which this weekend included the resignation of some of the most important members of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, including Mubarak's controversial son Gamal.

Most important, the Suleiman-Tantawi-Shafiq trio is in the process of actively making contact with some of the most important non-governmental figures in Egyptian business, letters, science and academia in an attempt to debate and decide the wisest way forward for balance between the army and those demanding democratic reform. Leaders of some of Egypt's 24 small but serious opposition parties have already joined in these discussions in hopes of making enough progress to enable a meaningful democratic parliamentary election in September. Reportedly, the government has offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks ago and the eventual lifting of the country's hated emergency laws

And what of Hosni Mubarak? Officially he still refuses to step down from the presidency before the September elections. But at this juncture the embattled Egyptian "leader's" real power already seems limited. He may yet decide to retire to his Red Sea home at Sharm el-Sheikh or join his wife in England for an extended stay abroad - even before September. But short of that, Egypt's current ruling triumvirate will do everything in its power to ensure Mubarak leaves office with dignity. For the democratic opposition to continue to stubbornly refuse to continue negotiating until Mubarak actually leaves is self-defeating.

Egypt's pyramids were not built in a day - or even a year. Had they been, they would have collapsed long ago.