Fireworks exploded Friday night over Cairo's Tahrir Square as protesters celebrated the resignation of Hosni Mubarak after three decades as Egypt's ruler. It was a dramatic end to the reign of a U.S. ally who was slow to recognize the power of millions of Egyptians demanding freedom and a better life. Now the challenge will be for the country's military to peacefully set the stage for real democratic elections during an uncertain transition period — and for the United States to play a constructive role.
The swiftness of Mubarak's demise caught the Obama administration by surprise and forced it to play catchup as the drama rapidly unfolded on worldwide television. It took just 18 days from the first protests to end 30 years of entrenched rule — and it would have happened sooner if Mubarak had not been so oblivious to what was happening around him. The efforts of citizens to organize using social networking tools such as Facebook to outmaneuver an entrenched ruler and a dangerous police operation are testament to the burning desire for self-government. The demonstrators showed it is easier and far quicker to plant the seeds of democracy in Egypt through popular protest than for American troops to sow the same seeds through armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied," President Barack Obama said in a statement Friday.
Still, as the president noted, there are difficult days ahead before genuine democracy is assured in Egypt. The military acted with commendable restraint, refusing to fire on protesters and acting to protect them from thugs supporting Mubarak. In reality, the Egyptian military plays a large role in the nation's economy and has a financial interest in ensuring it is not destroyed. Obama underscored the importance of this revolution to continue to play out peacefully and for the military to protect human rights, rewrite the constitution and set the stage for free elections.
To assist this transformation, the United States should speak with a clear voice in support of the Egyptian citizens in their quest for real democracy. That was not always the case in the last three weeks, as the Obama administration defended their right to protest without publicly abandoning Mubarak. Delivering an unequivocal message should be easier now, and the United States may be called upon for some measure of logistical and financial support.
The importance of a stable, reliable Egypt as an American ally is undeniable, and its future has an impact on Israel and the entire Middle East. Friday night was for celebrating the power of citizens speaking with a common voice to demand basic freedoms and the right to govern themselves. Now the even more difficult work begins to ensure those demands are met.