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A way forward in Egypt

By Salman Shaikh, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Salman Shaikh says Obama has called for transition in Egypt, but it's unclear who should lead it
  • He says there's news key members of ruling party quit, but Mubarak has said he'd be president till elections
  • Mubarak must go now and interim government set up; some in regime can aid transition
  • Shaihk: New constitution, restored rights crucial, process will take time, can't be rushed

Editor's note: Salman Shaikh is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Doha, Qatar. He focuses on mediation and conflict resolution in the Middle East and South Asia, and has also worked for the United Nations, including a post as a special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on the Middle East. Brookings is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy think tank.

Doha, Qatar (CNN) -- On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama edged closer to ending Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule by stating: "It is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."

This was a turnaround in the U.S. administration's position, which a week earlier had assessed that the "Egyptian government is stable." But even this new, apparently tougher, line is still not keeping up with the chaotic events on the ground, which are in danger of spiraling out of control.

There is a need to define now what an "orderly transition" in Egypt should be. The U.S. and Europeans have called for a transition -- a process of change -- that must begin now, but it is not clear who should lead it.

Mubarak has been attempting to convince his people that his presidency is coming to an end. Today, Egyptian State TV announced that some top leadership of the country's dominant ruling National Democratic Party had resigned, including the president's son, Gamal.

But on Monday, in an emotional national address, Mubarak had announced that he would quit but not until the next presidential elections in September--eight months from now. If this is still the case, a disorderly transition in Egypt is more likely, with all the dangers this entails.

The orchestrated clashes between pro-Mubarak forces and anti-regime protestors in Tahrir Square earlier in the week, in which at least 15 died and and some one thousand were injured, has meant that most Egyptians simply do not trust their president or his regime anymore.

This cannot go on. The popular nature of the revolt against Mubarak is dictating the terms of the transition to a new government. Put simply, the vast majority of Egyptians will not accept Mubarak's rule for one day more. An orderly transition will only occur if the U.S. and its Western allies --the European Union in particular--acts decisively and tells Mubarak that his time is up and that his regime has come to an end.

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The Egyptian political system is broken, and the Mubarak regime is that system. Reforms and reshuffling will not be sufficient to make the state functional once again. In fact, the longer the current pre-transition phase lasts, the greater the damage to the security, political and economic elements essential for an orderly transition.

The military -- the one institution in Egypt that can guarantee an orderly transition and a stable security environment -- is in a difficult position. Its passivity during the violent clashes in Tahrir Square has affected its reputation; this will complicate matters further.

The continuing stalemate will make it difficult to co-opt those key figures in the regime who could contribute to an orderly transfer. The role of the internationally respected Omar Suleiman in particular, in any negotiations with the opposition, is increasingly in the balance. He had said that he would not enter into negotiations until the anti-regime protestors stood down but has since sought to meet opposition figures.

International investors are concerned about the removal of economic reformers from the new cabinet, particularly former finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali, and what his role might be in a post-National Democratic Party government. Furthermore, by co-opting elements of the regime at the technical and ministry levels, a reform movement can expedite the process of standing up a new bureaucracy and civil service.

Finally, the Egyptian economy is in free fall. Its key economic drivers: foreign commerce, tourism, banking and trade services have all been paralyzed. Some foreign companies have evacuated their staff and closed their offices, and it is unclear how soon they will return.

Investors are also spooked by the prospect of Mubarak staying in office and fear that disruptions will continue for months. The country's credit rating has been downgraded by Moody's to Ba2, two levels below investment grade, and there is considerable concern that the Egyptian Pound will fall 20-30 percent when the banks and markets reopen.

The departure of Mubarak would start the search for a consensual political arrangement acceptable to the majority of Egyptians.

As a beginning, all emergency laws would have to be repealed and the terms for a transitional phase agreed upon. A political consensus involving opposition parties and movements would move action from the streets to government formation.

An interim government, whether a National Unity Government or a government of technocrats headed by a respected national figure would need to be installed soon after Mubarak's departure. Putting in place the machinery for free and fair elections, including a new and independent electoral commission would be a key task of the interim government. Basic rights and freedoms, including the right to assembly, must be safeguarded, along with a guarantee of press freedoms.

A new Egyptian constitution must be drafted to establish a new democratic system, and there must be a broad-based consensus on its terms. This would have to happen through a new constituent assembly that includes political representatives, civil society groups, trade unions and professional syndicates.

The temptation will be to rush this, but experience of constitution-making elsewhere (recently in Iraq and Afghanistan) tells us that such an exercise must spring from an inclusive national dialogue--and that this will take some time. The current parliament, discredited by shameful elections at the end of November last year, should be dissolved.

There must be a national conversation on the future direction of the country. A National Commission, modeled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, could provide the basis for national healing and dialogue on the way forward.

Led by a respected judge or another national figure, it would take testimony from representatives of all sections of Egyptian society, including intellectuals, writers and artists, the business establishment, the free media, human rights groups and NGOs.

The commission's first report and subsequent work (it would be for Egyptians to decide on how long the commission works) could also be a valuable contribution to establishing democratic roots in Egyptian society. Ultimately, after years of fragmentation and disadvantage, a new contract between the Egyptian state and its citizens must be agreed upon.

The transition to an established democratic system in the country will undoubtedly be difficult and will last several years. The experience of eastern European states emerging from decades of post-Soviet rule demonstrated that international support and assistance will be another key factor in Egypt's transition.

With hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turning out every day to demand the ouster of their president and the president giving no indication that he is leaving any time soon, we are at a grinding impasse.

As the situation in Egypt increasingly assumes international impact, world leaders, especially President Obama, must now act decisively and tell Mubarak to go. That is the only way to move toward an "orderly transition," which has already taken too long to begin.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Shaihk.