Interim Plan: What Egypt Needs Next
By Zalmay Khalilzad
The seismic changes underway in Egypt can ultimately be either beneficial or disastrous for the country and the region.?
Both outcomes are equally possible. The key to achieving a positive outcome is a successful transition, specifying the steps to a new order and doing so immediately. Time is not necessarily on the side of a positive outcome, particularly because the violence instigated by Mubarak and his loyalists could resume, American overall leverage is diminishing and anti-Western sentiments are being promoted and exploited.?
The Obama Administration has called for a transition and for that process to start immediately. This is a good step, but it is not enough. It should now focus on -- and play a helpful role in --catalyzing a fair and workable plan between the two key forces in Egypt -- the military and key opposition groups -- before it is too late. The administration should say less publicly and to do more behind the scenes in order to facilitate the formation of a coalition capable of executing an orderly transition to a new democratic system.?
Our role can be critical. The United States still has important leverage, even though we may have little influence with President Hosni Mubarak now that we have called for his immediate departure. However, we have a strong relationship with the Egyptian military, which has a decisive role to play with respect to whether, when, and what kind of transition takes place - including the timing of Mubarak's departure. Our influence is a product of almost four decades of military cooperation, and we have good relations with key military leaders. The United States also can bring to bear immediate assistance to alleviate the humanitarian consequences of mounting economic disruptions and offer to continue or enhance the long-term development program for the country.?
How can we help shape the transition and convert our leverage into progress on the ground -- all while recognizing that the Egyptians will be making the decisions? First, we should reach an understanding with Vice President Omar Suleiman, Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and other key military leaders on a transition plan and that precludes the resumption of violence against the opposition and civil society.
Second, we need to reach out to the leaders of the opposition, including political figures, the prominent independent Egyptian figures now calling themselves the ‘Council of the Wise,' trade unionists, civil society, and youth leaders. Here, we need to develop relationships and encourage these new forces to constructively negotiate a transitional government.?
Third, we should be prepared to offer advice and propose bridging formulas to assist in resolving differences between the military and the opposition. Sunday's meeting between Vice President Suleiman and the Council of the Wise, a very credible opposition voice, is a positive development. But there is a long way to go, and each side would like to control the transition. How this process will end remains uncertain. ?
Although the transition can take several forms, any agreement will have to deal with several issues:
- A date of departure for Mubarak: The opposition wants him to leave immediately while Mubarak has stated that he would leave after the next presidential elections in September. A possible compromise would be for Mubarak to leave office on the day that the new transitional government is sworn in and to do so by constitutional means.
- Selection of the transitional leadership: The most workable arrangement might involve the current vice president remaining as the head of the transition authority. There could be an agreement, if necessary, for the head of the transition authority to have one or two deputies. In such a case, the army could provide one deputy, for example Defense Minister Tantawi. The opposition could select another, perhaps someone from the Council the Wise.
- Composition of the cabinet: Ministerial assignments should be designed to make the transitional government broadly representative. If both the military and the opposition decide to share in the transition administration, the military should hold the security portfolios. The remainder could be divided among important political leaders, trade unionists, and young technocrats who are untainted by corruption.?
There will also have to be agreement on dissolving the current parliament, which was elected in what all agree was a flawed election. Similarly, the emergency laws imposed by Mubarak to prevent political mobilization and organization will have to be terminated. There will have to be an agreement on a drafting committee for a new constitution and a ratification process and the drafting of a new election law and the timing of new elections for the new president and parliament. Mubarak and his family should be offered amnesty in order to put the past behind as quickly as possible. But this has to be balanced by an agreement on an accountability process.
The timing of elections should be set strategically to enable democratic forces to organize and coalesce around a set of leaders. Too often in the past, the United States has pressed for quick elections, regardless of whether this puts democrats and moderates at a disadvantage.?
From personal experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have also seen that the United States is often unwilling to take steps needed to create a level political playing field between democratic forces that have substantial potential support but lack funding and non-democratic forces who receive such support from countries like Iran.
To date, the debate about events in Egypt centers on whether these are dangerous or hopeful. Yet this question can only be judged in retrospect, after the post-Mubarak transition either succeeds or fails to produce a better order, and it will depend, in part, on how its most volatile moments are managed.
The situation at present is highly volatile, and we have an opportunity to assist in shaping the future by encouraging the inclusion of appropriate steps and structures. Western and especially U.S. policymakers should therefore focus on how to engineer the right kind of transition.
This will not be easy, particularly because the opposition is diffuse and lacks clear leaders; they are likely to differ on key issues beyond Mubarak's immediate departure. Yet actions by United States and its democratic allies in Europe can be important in producing the kind of outcome that will serve the interests of the Egyptian people by building toward a democratic order.
The crisis in Egypt -- and its reverberations throughout the Middle East -- signals that the United States and European democracies must become more engaged in the region, supporting reform and establishing a foundation for a democratic order. As a first step, we need to engage our friends, such as Jordan and other countries, and assist them in a developing and implementing a plan for reforms that can preclude the type of crisis happening in Egypt.
More broadly, we need to support civil society and new media throughout the region -- in both friendly and hostile countries. The region's political, economic, and social systems are failing to cope with the demands of modernity, and these dysfunctions are producing political turbulence and threats that the wider world cannot ignore. The United States and its European allies should partner with positive political forces in these countries to work toward the transformation of the region, opening up political and economic systems while ensuring that constructive politics rather than violence shape the future.
This will require patience and commitment, but encouraging the evolution Middle East into a stable and normal region is imperative not only for the people of the region but for our own security and the security of our friends and allies.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations.
Editors note: This post was updated on Monday, February 7, to reflect current circumstances.