President Barack Obama during a presidential daily briefing at the Oval Office on February 3, 2011. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)
To the disappointment of many, the Obama administration's policy of "orderly transition to democracy" in Egypt, which just a few days ago seemed to be embracing pro-democracy protesters' demand that Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak leave office, now seems to be backtracking to the idea that Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman can lead a credible process of transition to democracy, despite the unwillingness of the US-backed Egyptian government so far to accept any concrete demands for reform.
Many protesters and analysts fear that the strategy of the Egyptian government - and, by extension, the de facto strategy of the Obama administration, which is backing the Egyptian government - will simply be to "run the clock" and outlast the protesters, without putting Egypt on a path to democracy.
The vague "reforms" and "concessions" announced so far by the Egyptian government - and the apparent silence of the Obama administration about any concrete measures, as well as the Mubarak government's track record of vaguely promising reform without delivering it and the US track record of years of ineffectual pressure - lend support to the "run the clock" view.
So far, the "reforms" and "concessions" that have been reported have been a "nothing burger" as far as the transition to democracy is concerned. The government has promised to support the creation of a committee that will recommend changes in March. As things stand, such changes will have to be ratified by the pro-Mubarak parliament created by the last rigged election.
What's to study? Key reforms necessary to put Egypt on a path to democracy are well-known. If the Egyptian government wanted to establish its bona fides, it could enact some of these reforms immediately and declare its intention to enact others. And if the Obama administration wanted to establish its bona fides, it could press publicly for such reforms to be announced and implemented immediately, making clear that failure to enact these reforms will have consequences for US military aid to the Egyptian government and for other benefits controlled by the Obama administration, such as issuance of US visas to Egyptian officials.
The public justification for the Obama administration to back Mubarak and Suleiman is the need for an orderly transition, the need to prevent chaos.
But there is no plausible argument - except perhaps in the minds of senior Egyptian officials backed by the Obama administration - that key reforms would lead to chaos.
If it is really the plan of the Obama administration that the already-scheduled election in September will be a "free and fair election," then some of these reforms should be implemented immediately. Some of the following reforms could be enacted within days; the government's intention to enact others could be announced immediately. The Obama administration could announce immediately its intention to hold the Egyptian government accountable - with the threat of withdrawal of some US aid and other benefits within the purview of the Obama administration, such as US visas for Egyptian officials - for the speedy enactment of these reforms.
First, the Egyptian government can immediately stop arresting and harassing local and international journalists, bloggers, democracy activists and human rights lawyers, and release or charge and bring to court everyone it has detained. Some estimates have put the number of people arrested since January 25 at more than ten thousand.
Second, the Egyptian government can immediately move to repeal the emergency law, which in 2008 the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights declared to be "the main source for violations against human rights," noting "a close relationship between the declaration of a state of emergency" and a pattern of routine torture.
Third, the Egyptian government can immediately announce that all political parties, including new ones, will be allowed to compete in the September election without discrimination, and that reforms will be enacted to bring this about.
Fourth, the Egyptian government can immediately announce that the September election will be fully observed by Egyptian judges and independent monitors, and that reforms will be enacted to bring this about.
Fifth, the Egyptian government can immediately announce that state media will be neutral in the September elections, and that reforms will be enacted to bring this about.
The implementation of all of these reforms may not be immediately feasible, but there is no justification for delaying the statement of intent to enact them.
Furthermore, there is no justification for the Obama administration not to explicitly embrace these demands, since it is obvious that failure to enact these demands would be incompatible with a "free and fair election."
These reforms are benchmarks for judging how serious the Obama administration really is about democracy in Egypt. The Obama administration should explicitly call for these reforms and explicitly link them to the continuation of US aid and other benefits within the purview of the administration. Members of Congress should publicly call for these reforms and seek to enact them into law as standards for the continuation of US aid.
If these reforms are not enacted, what we are likely to see is not an "orderly transition to democracy," but an "orderly transition" to Mubarak-ism without Mubarak.
The US has long been perceived in the region as backing dictators, but the protests in Egypt have raised the stakes of continuing this perception. If the US chooses dictatorship over democracy now, this perception of the US in the region - that it "backs dictators" - will be set for a long time.