Hosni Mubarak’s promise this week to initiate constitutional reform in Egypt and then step down at the end of his presidential term in September did little to mollify the anger of the demonstrators protesting his rule. Many protesters seemed to agree with the assessment of the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei that it was “a trick” intended to buy time. With the regime-sponsored ugliness now engulfing Tahrir Square, demands for Mr. Mubarak’s immediate resignation have grown only more urgent, and the risk of a violent conclusion appears to have grown.
But there may still be a chance to effect the “orderly transition” that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for. Paradoxically, it requires that Mr. Mubarak stay on, but only for a short time, to initiate the election of an entirely new Parliament that could then amend all the power out of the presidency or even abolish it.
This would no doubt disappoint those who want to put Mr. Mubarak on the next plane to Saudi Arabia, but there are two risks associated with his leaving so abruptly. The first is that the demonstrations might diminish or dissipate, leaving Mr. ElBaradei and his coalition trying to negotiate with the military or Vice President Omar Suleiman without the force of the crowds behind them.
The second risk stems from the Egyptian Constitution, which gives the power to dissolve Parliament and call new elections only to an elected president. Mr. Mubarak’s successor, as an acting president, would be specifically prohibited from getting the parliamentary elections under way. A new Parliament is crucial to democratic reform, because only Parliament has the power to defang the Egyptian presidency, stripping it of its dictatorial powers through constitutional amendment. The current Parliament — bought and paid for by Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party — is not fit for that task.
Egypt’s next scheduled presidential election is only months away. If the Constitution isn’t amended before it is held, the notorious Article 76, which makes it difficult for independents like Mr. ElBaradei to get on the ballot, will still be in place. More important, the new president would have the same imperial powers Mr. Mubarak has had — the very powers that the Egyptian public wants taken away.
The constitutionally sanctioned timeline would be this: Mr. Mubarak dissolves Parliament, forcing a new election within 60 days (international observers would be required to make sure the election is fair). Once the new Parliament is seated, Mr. Mubarak resigns, and an acting president, probably the new Parliament’s speaker, takes charge until a new president is elected. The new Parliament would work around the clock to amend the Constitution in ways that would put Mr. Suleiman or any would-be strongman out of a job. The final step is a national referendum on the amendments.
For American policymakers, the most frightening possibility is that the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep the parliamentary elections and institute a constitution based on Islamic holy law. This is unlikely. The political momentum in Egypt is not with the Islamists. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s members have never sought to compete for a majority of seats in Parliament, and during the current protests have impressed people across the Egyptian political spectrum with their self-effacement. Brotherhood adherents know that a victory for them could be used by the military as an excuse to short-circuit the birth of democracy in Egypt.
A likelier outcome is that the Islamists would join a coalition slate of candidates, becoming part of an ideologically diverse Parliament. The greater danger now is that Mr. Mubarak would corrupt the electoral process by unleashing the same thugs who are now attacking the peaceful protesters of Tahrir Square.
One might wonder why, at this moment of change and tumult, anyone would talk about amending a constitution that everyone recognizes as a deformed confection of a corrupt regime. But by working with even a flawed constitution, the opposition would be helping to entrench and deepen a constitutionalist principle that has been steadily eroded. And with its built-in deadlines, the constitutional route also makes it harder for the military to draw out the transition and consolidate its hold.
For any of this to happen, Mr. Mubarak must remain briefly in office, and he must agree to the changes as an answer to his people’s legitimate cry for democracy. The demand that can make him comply must come from President Obama.
It has often been said in recent days that the United States can do nothing to affect the progress of democracy in Egypt, but the military’s dependence on American money and matériel suggests that this is untrue. The more the United States can make clear that continued military support depends on how the Egyptian Army conducts itself during this transition, the more likely the military is to play midwife to democracy.
Much could go wrong, but finding an orderly way to get not just Mr. Mubarak but also the armed forces out of political life should be a more important priority than ensuring that Islamists don’t hijack the revolution. All that is required of us is to remind ourselves that democracy in Egypt, or any other part of the world, is not something we should fear.
By Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.