In the wake of the unfolding uprising in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's announcement on Tuesday that he will serve out the remainder of his term until scheduled presidential elections this September will only fuel greater instability, not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East. If Mubarak obstinately flouts both protesters on the streets of Egypt and U.S. emissaries behind the scenes calling for his immediate resignation, his very presence and leadership would further jeopardize the long term objectives of the United States, Israel and key Arab states in the region--Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in particular. Today, violent attacks by pro-Mubarak forces have resulted in the injuries and deaths of many protesters on the streets. As President Obama stated in the White House yesterday, an orderly transition in Egypt "must begin now." This transition cannot be managed or presided over by Hosni Mubarak, and the Obama administration must therefore forcefully push for Mubarak's exit immediately.
The unprecedented protests in Egypt over the last week have stirred much debate on the potential consequences of Mubarak's fall, including the fracturing of the cold peace between Israel and Egypt, the empowerment of political Islam, the spread of revolt across the Arab world, and the American abandonment of a trusted ally and partner. More than anything, the specter of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the legacy of which the United States, Israel and the Arab world are threatened by today, looms over the Egyptian uprising. Those who oppose placing significant pressure on Mubarak fear that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be the Iran of tomorrow, an Islamic state that will be openly hostile to Israel, the United States, and secular Arab nations. However, while the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in a future Egyptian government will present serious challenges for America and its allies, such fears of an "Iran redux" belie the reality of today's uprising in Egypt, which encompass the youth, the disenfranchised middle class and other opposition groups long shut out of the political establishment in Cairo.
If Mubarak were to resign in the coming week, his departure would pave the way for an interim caretaker presidency in Omar Suleiman, Egypt's veteran intelligence chief and recently appointed Vice President, who has developed strong relations with the United States and Israel. More importantly, Suleiman can maintain the critical backing of the Egyptian military, which remains highly respected among Egyptians. Suleiman's primary goal as an interim caretaker president will be to serve as a mediator between the opposition forces in Egypt, coalescing behind Mohammed ElBaradei, and the cautious military brass.
In balancing the demands of the opposition for broadened political participation against the army's clear hostility toward a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, Suleiman undoubtedly faces a daunting task. However, by publicly calling for new, free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming months, and by working openly with ElBaradei and other opposition leaders, Suleiman could provide calm to an increasingly volatile landscape. Public negotiations with ElBaradei and the opposition groups, regarding constitutional reforms and the lifting of the Emergency Law, will help legitimize Egypt's transition and temper the uprising on the street, which has wreaked havoc on the Egyptian economy. More than anything, Suleiman's interim presidency could increase the chances of success in an orderly transition of power in Egypt.
In addition, Suleiman will be able to assuage and manage the concerns of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which jointly see the uprising as a major threat to regional stability. While Israel and the Arab states have much to fear individually from continued volatility in Egypt, the impact of the Egyptian uprising on burgeoning relations between Israel and the Arab powers could be detrimental on shared interests, such as containing Iranian influence in the region. With the rise of Iran, Israel and key Arab states have developed closer relationships, albeit cold or clandestine. Nothing less than the legitimacy of U.S. leadership in the Middle East, particularly in challenging the hegemonic aspirations of the Iranian regime, hinges on a stable transition of power in Egypt, which accounts for the concerns of the opposition groups and the indispensable military.
Although Mubarak's resignation should bring satisfaction to the Egyptian people that have joined together in the last week in protest against him, the choice of Suleiman as interim president is by no means a palatable and ideal cure-all to the process of democratic reform in Egypt. The opposition may very well view Suleiman as nothing more than Mubarak's handpicked stooge, with his own aspirations for a lengthy tenure in office. Yet the United States can play a pivotal role in exerting pressure on Suleiman and the Egyptian military to conduct timely and substantive negotiations with the opposition on constitutional reforms and guarantee new elections. For example, if the Egyptian government reneged on promises to conduct meaningful negotiations with the opposition, the United States could significantly reduce its military and economic aid to Egypt, which totaled $1.5 billion in 2010 alone.
Ultimately, this transition of power simply cannot be led by Hosni Mubarak, as the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in Egypt have demonstrated, and as forces loyal to Mubarak violently attack the protesters. Mubarak's continued presence in Egyptian politics alone will only galvanize greater unrest in Egypt and further complicate what will clearly be a difficult transition period. Behind the scenes, the United States should threaten Mubarak with the complete suspension of any military or economic aid to his regime unless he stands down, and call on Suleiman and the generals to force Mubarak's hand. While the United States has not "lost" Egypt yet, Mubarak's unyielding pronouncement to stay in power until elections in September could pave the way for a future Egyptian government hostile to the United States, if seen as complicit in Mubarak's defiance. In forcefully pushing for the immediate resignation of Hosni Mubarak, thereby paving the path for an interim presidency by Suleiman and negotiations with the opposition and military on fair and new elections, the Obama Administration will reduce the likelihood of greater instability in Egypt while reassuring Israel and Arab allies in the region.