At 11:34 EST, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced, “In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic.”
The departure of Mubarak has long been considered a prerequisite for transformation of the government. His departure, however, hardly means the crisis is at an end. The military has been prominent in guiding the government response, and now with Mubarak’s departure, the armed forces—one of the few government institutions widely respected in the country—will bear the responsibility for guiding the transition process.
The Egyptian military faces many challenges: restoring order, cracking down on violence, ensuring that the economy does not collapse, and guiding a political process that will allow time and space for the voices of the Egyptian people to be heard. Egypt’s most pressing need is economic reforms that will improve the livelihoods of its citizens and create a platform that will allow civil society to flourish. If either the Muslim Brotherhood or the country’s “old guard” is permitted to hijack the revolution, the needs and aspirations of the people will never be satisfied, and the country could lapse into an authoritarian state even less desirable than that of the Mubarak regime.
All that we know for sure is that the situation Egypt will likely remain dynamic for weeks, months, or even years ahead. Furthermore, the Middle East may not have seen the last of historic transformation.
Strong leadership from the United States is more important than ever. In regards to Egypt, the priority for U.S. policy should be to set clear expectations for a responsible government. Whatever regime emerges in Cairo should respect the freedom and human rights of its own citizens, particularly those of women and Egypt’s Christian minority, which comprises about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. The U.S. should also reaffirm the importance of Egyptian compliance with its legal obligations under its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and of ensuring the right of passage of commerce through the Suez Canal.
Engaging with the new regime in Egypt is just one task for appropriately exercising American leadership. Rather than letting the Administration “off the hook,” Mubarak’s departure today marks the beginning of Washington having to up its game to keep with the changes of this part of the world.