Moving Egypt beyond President Hosni Mubarak's 30 years of authoritarian rule won't be easy. But the Obama administration is sending the right signals, underscoring the United States' security interest and making clear that Egyptians should control the fate of their government. The administration needs to continue supporting the call for democracy and do what it can in the coming days and weeks to ensure a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.
Mubarak announced several concessions Monday aimed at defusing the street protests that have taken the world by surprise over the past week. But the reshuffling of his Cabinet is a weak attempt by Mubarak to buy time in advance of a massive demonstration and general strike planned for today. While the official death toll stands at nearly 100, eyewitnesses say scores more have been killed and thousands injured in the crisis. President Barack Obama made a round of phone calls over the weekend to plead for an orderly transition toward democratic rule, a call the European Union echoed on Monday.
The United States should remain engaged to keep this fast-moving drama from spiralling into all-out civil conflict. The opposition has been largely peaceful so far, and even more militant voices look to be coalescing under the nominal leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular figure and former United Nations diplomat. Today's planned demonstration could be a major test of whether Egypt's military intends to remain on the sidelines and keep its promise not to fire at peaceful protesters. Washington needs to press Mubarak not to force a standoff with the military. As Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now serving as the international Mideast envoy, said, change is inevitable and "you cannot put the genie back in the bottle."
America has a vital national security interest in maintaining strong ties with a stable Egypt. Mubarak has been a reliable partner in the Arab world, and Egypt's treaty with Israel is an opening for the West to broker a broader peace deal throughout the Middle East. But militants gain the upper hand every day that peaceful protest fails to yield results. Already some blame the United States for Mubarak holding out. And the crisis has forced Israel to face new security threats as Hamas and other militants look to exploit the political vacuum.
The United States has few options in shaping the outcome of a crisis decades in the making. But the scenes in Cairo make clear that Egyptians are watching for signs of American hypocrisy. The Obama administration lost a day or two before it realized the seriousness of the revolt. But it has sent the right messages since by calling for a "transition" to a more democratic, open Egypt and a timetable for making it happen. The White House can help keep the crisis in check this week by reinforcing that it wants continuity in its relations with Egypt. That could offer both the opposition and the military a sense of stability as the nation embarks on a new era.