It's frankly hard to believe today's news that Hosni Mubarak has finally stepped down as President of Egypt without a wave of bloodshed. After yesterday's disappointment and today's anxiety, nothing could have been more welcome. There will be plenty of time for post-mortems, and there will be an enormous amount of hard work to come to ensure that this actually becomes a transition to democracy and not simply to a reconstituted authoritarian regime. But for today, it's okay to simply celebrate -- to stand in awe of the Egyptian people and their ability to topple a seemingly impenetrable dictator through massive, peaceful protests. Nothing will ever be the same, and no Arab will ever forget today's scenes broadcast on al-Jazeera. This was an unprecedented victory for the Egyptian people, and at last a vindication of the Obama administration's patient and well-crafted strategy.
There is no question that the first, second and third drivers of this Egyptian revolution were the Egyptian people. The creativity of the youth and their ability to mobilize a wide range of Egyptian society around a common demand against daunting odds are simply an inspiration. The fact that these massive crowds avoided violence under incredibly tense conditions and under great uncertainty speaks volumes. This did not come out of nowhere --- Egyptian activists have been mobilizing for change for a decade, with the Kefaya movement deserving enormous credit for breaking the walls of silence and fear and bringing opposition to the Mubarak regime out into the public sphere. But their success in the face of the power of a strong authoritarian regime was a surprise to everyone -- including to them. And in the analyses to come, al-Jazeera's role will require a chapter of its own... time for me to do an updated version of Voices of the New Arab Public!
The Obama administration also deserves a great deal of credit, which it probably won't receive. It understood immediately and intuitively that it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance, and consistently deferred to the Egyptian people. Despite the avalanche of criticism from protestors and pundits, in fact Obama and his key aides -- including Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and many others -- backed the Egyptian protest movement far more quickly than anyone should have expected. Their steadily mounting pressure on the Mubarak regime took time to succeed, causing enormous heartburn along the way, but now can claim vindication. By working carefully and closely with the Egyptian military, it helped restrain the worst violence and prevent Tiananmen on the Tahrir -- which, it is easy to forget today, could very easily have happened. No bombs, no shock and awe, no soaring declarations of American exceptionalism, and no taking credit for a tidal wave which was entirely of the making of the Egyptian people -- just the steadily mounting public and private pressure on the top of the regime which was necessary for the protestors to succeed.
The Obama administration also understood from the start, and has consistently said, that removing Mubarak would not be enough. It has rejected "faux democracy," and pushed hard for fundamental systemic reforms. Over the coming days and weeks, it should push for specific changes on a clear timetable: lifting the emergency reform, amending the Constitution, appointing a credible and nonpartisan commission to oversee elections, securing a guarantee from whoever acts as the interim head of state that he will not run for re-election, preventing retaliation against protestors, ensuring the inclusion of opposition figures in the process, and more. The outcome will be judged on what emerges over months and years to come, not only by today's exhilerating turn of events. I hope that everyone thrilled by the downfall of the dictator remains attentive and committed to helping bring about the democratic transformation which Egyptians deserve, which serves real American interests, and which could help change the entire region.
By the way, for those keeping score in the "peacefully removing Arab dictators" game, it's now Obama 2, Bush 0. The administration has been subjected to an enormous amount of criticism over the last two weeks for its handling of Egypt, including by people inspired by or who worked on the previous administration's Freedom Agenda. It was also attacked sharply from the left, by activists and academics who assumed that the administration was supporting Mubarak and didn't want democratic change. In the end, Obama's strategy worked. Perhaps this should earn it some praise, and even some benefit of the doubt going forward. And now, a day to celebrate before rolling up the sleeves for the hard work to come.
UPDATE, 3:56pm: And here's the transcript of Obama's speech -- which was just outstanding, but I'll discussion of that to others.
Flickr Creative Commons, February 11, 2011