It’s not every day that a powerful dictator is pressured to flee his palace, let alone after a short three week period of popular demonstrations. But now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, ceded control to the Egyptian military and fled to his Sharm el-Sheik hideout, this is the reality that the Egyptian people face.
The announcement of Mubarak’s departure, read aloud on state television by Vice President Omar Suleimen, was short but sweet:
My fellow citizens. In this difficult time that the country is going through, President Mohamad Hosni Mubarak has decided to relieve himself of his position as president and the Supreme Military Council has taken control of the state’s affairs. May God protect us.
It was an undignified exit for an autocrat that the United States only a month ago considered their most stable and effective ally in the region.
The protesters that camped out in Tahir Square in central Cairo were jubilant at Mubarak’s sudden resignation which occurred only a day after the president defiantly refused to shed his position until elections in September. Tens of thousands of Egyptians embraced one another with hugs and wept tears of joy, and millions more across the Middle East have been inspired by what the collective power of the citizenry can do.
Yet as Egyptians continue to celebrate, this is only the very beginning of the transition to democracy. As Iraq, Palestine, Germany post-World War II and France after its 1789 revolution have demonstrated, transforming a political system previously dominated by autocracy is an especially difficult task to accomplish. And while Egypt’s generals have taken some positive steps toward greater transparency — including the dissolution of the parliament and a promise to revisit the Constitution — democracy will not occur overnight.
The United States too, will experience a noteworthy shift its their geopolitical position. Hosni Mubarak cooperated and advanced virtually every American and Western policy in the Middle East without a compliant, including the containment of Iran and the closing of the Egyptian-Gaza border in order to drain Hamas of its weapons caches. With Mubarak finished, Washington will quickly discover how much more difficult it will be to convince a new Egyptian government to continue those policies, most of which are extremely unpopular across the Arab world.
Democracy may be a cornerstone of the American political culture but it will also prove to be a headache for the Obama Administration’s entire Middle East policy.
Ironically, the Egyptian political faction that emerges as the most powerful in Egypt’s government does not really matter for the United States, despite those who argue that a Muslim Brotherhood-led administration would completely eradicate Egypt’s pro-Western bent. At this point in time, all of Egypt’s political parties — the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal el-Ghad Party and the secular Wafd — will find themselves questioning Cairo’s existing foreign policy for the sake of garnering popular support and repositioning themselves for Egypt’s next order.
Mubarak may have been a dictator who oppressed his own people for three consecutive decades but he at least consistently toed the American line. Now that Egypt is building a post-Mubarak future, Washington should expect its dependable Arab ally to revisit programs that may not be in its own interest. The sooner that the White House is prepared for this to happen, the quicker Washington will be able to forge a brand new relationship with a more pluralistic and humane Egyptian partner.