So it appears — if breaking news reports can be believed — that Hosni Mubarak is bowing to the inevitable by announcing that he will leave office. As recently as a day or two ago, he seemed intent on clinging on by adopting a rope-a-dope strategy, hoping that the energy of the protesters would flag and they would decide to go home.
That didn’t happen. Instead we’ve seen bigger protests than ever. So Mubarak finally understands that his time has passed. But Egypt has not been ruled by a one-man regime. Mubarak has presided over a vast, corrupt, ineffective oligarchy propped up by the army and his National Democratic Party, which should more properly be labeled “undemocratic party.” Omar Suleiman, his chosen successor, has been one of his closest collaborators.
A change at the top may not change much on the ground unless the regime makes a real commitment to lifting the “emergency laws” that have been used to repress all dissent. It is probably a good thing that the army is moving to make an orderly transition, but the U.S. has to make sure that the transition is to democracy, not to another dictator. If Suleiman now tries to rule as Mubarak did, there will surely be a continuation of popular protest that will create an opening for the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists.
That does not mean that Egypt should hold snap elections. There has been no time for political parties and a free press to organize. Better to go slow where elections are concerned but to go fast in matters of individual liberty. Open up the public space, let a thousand opinions be hashed out, a thousand parties organize, a thousand media outlets start up — and then go the voting booth. But not before.