While everyone is focusing on the war in Libya, the revolution is still playing out in Egypt – a vital fact that its neighbors and other nations should not forget. The mostly peaceful protests that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak six weeks ago were just the first phase in a transition to what, we hope, will be a democratic future. Egypt is the most important Arab country and the touchstone for change in the Arab world. Egyptians are going to have to exert maximum commitment – over decades – to get this right.
The chances of success are greatly improved if the United States and other major democratic nations stand by ready to help. On Saturday, Egypt held its first free and fair election. Millions voted and overwhelmingly approved nine constitutional amendments to set the stage for parliamentary and presidential elections that are expected later this year. The amendments begin to jettison a cruel and repressive system.
They limit how long a president can serve (two four-year terms), make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot and restrict a president’s ability to impose a state of emergency. Still, the process was flawed. The amendments were drafted by a panel appointed by the secretive ruling military council and rushed to a vote. They do not go nearly far enough and were not adequately publicized. A full rewrite of the Constitution will have to come later. We share the unease of young protesters who made the revolution happen and worry their demand for democracy could be hijacked by the highly organized groups who campaigned hardest for the amendments: allies of the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
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The military government on Wednesday took another step toward civilian governance by easing rules on forming political parties. But it also laid plans to outlaw demonstrations. The draconian, decades-old state of emergency must be lifted and with it curbs on freedom of speech and assembly. It would be much bette if protesters and civil society groups were involved in these decisions, including setting dates for elections. Egyptians are justly proud of what they accomplished and wary of outsiders, especially the United States, which long backed the old regime. But they need to quickly make political reforms.
If they resist American help, there are plenty of newly democratic countries that can advise on political parties and rule of law. Where the United States and Europe can bring crucial assets to bear is with economic reform. Egypt’s state-run economy – where the military has a huge stake – has failed to create jobs for millions of young Egyptians. A recently announced multimillion-dollar American economic aid package is a good start. The Obama administration also promised to sustain its longstanding aid to Egypt, which runs about $1. 5 billion a year, mostly for the military.
But more is needed. The West should pursue bilateral and regional trade agreements with Egypt (this would be a good time for Israel to reach out).
Congress needs to expedite approval for an American-Egyptian fund proposed by the Obama administration, Senator John Kerry and others. Modeled after similar funds for post-Communist Eastern Europe, it aims to stimulate desperately needed private-sector investment. The total cost is unclear, but the money initially would be reprogrammed from already approved accounts. This is a moment of great promise – and great risk – in the Arab world.
Success is not assured. Washington and its allies must work creatively and urgently to help Egyptians build their democracy to make it a durable anchor of stability and tolerance in the Middle East.
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