The Arab youth have lost their fear, and marched in defiance of their leadership in search of bread, freedom and dignity. They have forged new political realities that are fraught with possibilities and promise as well as dangers and peril. One thing is clear-the status quo has come to an end. Arab unity, long proclaimed dead and buried, has reemerged in a political contagion which is spreading among the Arabs whose regimes (with the exception of the Gulf) are twisting in the winds. Tunisia led the way, but Egypt, has defined this phenomenon shattering the regional status quo with deep global consequences. A brave new world has just opened up.
Hosni Mubarak addressed his people two days ago. It is tragic for an eighty-two-year-old leader to cling to his public job of thirty years, and it would be irresponsible to enable him to keep his job as a president of a people who have rejected him. Geopolitical and weighty considerations of war and peace, global access to energy, and strategic national interests are all offered as reasons to maintain support of this taciturn octogenarian as he deflected the wrath of his angry and long suffering people. However, his achievements have been overshadowed by his shortcomings and the events have sealed the fate of his regime.
The obvious first statement to make about this pathetic picture is that the system should not have allowed for it in the first place, nor should it ever leave such a possibility open for the future. Term limits, simply stated not to exceed two terms, and enforced without the possibility of extension, must be as sacred as the metaphysical sacred words that saturate the air of the Middle East. Never again, not in Egypt, nor anywhere else, should a ruler be able to govern longer than two terms, let alone for thirty or forty years. Presidential sons have just learned another lesson: Abandon hopes of thinking of inheriting the Presidency.
Now that a Vice President has been selected, and a cadre of experienced security and military officials has been named, this new team can find an exit for Mubarak which befits the dignity of Egypt and its president. The new president and the prime minister, with the support of the army, should negotiate with the demonstrators to constitute a widely representative interim cabinet to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections in the fall. A spring and summer of openness must pave the way to free, fair, contested and debated elections as Egyptians argue and compete to define the future of their country and its institutions.
Less optimistic scenarios include either a protracted confrontation that drains the energies of the demonstrators and wreaks havoc on the country's economy and resources, or a brutal crackdown by the army a la Tienanmen Square that then leads to a military dictatorship. The Egyptian military does not have the equivalent of China's communist party to shield its government and keep its hold on the country nor does it have the domestic economic infrastructure that can sustain the punishing global reaction. It has to weigh the benefits of sticking with Mubarak versus making a deal with the opposition that keeps its power and image intact.
The Arabs, and especially the Egyptians whose decline over the past half a century spelled the decline of all Arabs, have just entered a new phase. Their citizens have just proven that they matter. They have power, rights and dignity that will never again be taken away. Tunisia has led the way and the wave of political reform will not crest till it is implemented. It may not happen everywhere right away but it will happen. The Arab people, especially the youth, want to join the rest of the human race and realize more of the potential of their people and countries than what their rulers allow. They want more than bread, they want freedom and dignity. The excuse of a threat of extremists' takeover cannot be used to derail their quest for empowerment and pursuit of a meaningful democracy.
Pluralism, inclusiveness and rights of citizens enshrined in the rule of law, shielded by an independent judiciary, are not just a set of empty words crafted by dreamy eyed intellectuals. They are concepts and values that combine human aspirations with societal needs. These very concepts must compete with metaphysical ideologies and entrenched forces that propose other solutions and visions. The future of the Arabs depends largely on the outcome of this competition, and the challenge of the new order is to see to it that there can be no room in this debate for governmental or factional violence or coercion.
It has often been said that wherever Egypt goes, there go the Arabs. With the exception of the Gulf, its systems, resources and culture, the saying still applies. The fate of Egypt ranging between democracy, autocracy, theocracy and more kleptocracy offers the best compass for the rest of the region.
The Arab regimes, outside of the Gulf, are threatened by the end of the Arab people's docility and passivity no matter how eager they seem to deny that the events of Tunisia and Egypt mean anything to them. They can adapt and accept institutional accountability based on the rule of law, independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances on the executive branch or they can carry on with business as usual at their own risk. The rights of the ordinary citizen are here to stay. The global system which preached reform as it protected autocrats has reached its own limits. The leaders of yesterday, and today, who do not heed and amend will be cast away by their erstwhile friends as dictators and tyrants and their families and bank accounts will find no hospitable refuge.
Ziad Asali is the President of the American Task Force on Palestine