Hosni Mubarak's bid to hold on to power seven more months can only provoke the opposition. And the deployment of violence against protesters on Wednesday adds explosives to provocation. After the beatings in Cairo, the protesters against Mubarak's rule face two daunting questions:
1) How can they trust him and his preferred successor Gamal Mubarak to leave when time's up?
2) How much booty will Mubarak haul away with him during those seven months?
That's why I doubt Mubarak's bid will quell discontent much, especially since he has now signaled that protest and pressure can alter his plans — in this case, his succession plans. To the opposition, this is an obvious incentive to protest more.
At this point, U.S. interests and the Mubarak dynasty's interests have sharply diverged. Mubarak's interest is to deflect protest in hope that something rescues the dynasty before September.
The American interest?
We want to preserve Egypt as part of the Western-oriented bloc in the Middle East. We want to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. We want Egyptian cooperation against terrorist groups, including Hamas.
To those ends, we want to maintain something like the current regime in power, but with new faces and more public participation. We want to accelerate economic growth by encouraging economic reforms. And I know this is taboo ground in U.S. politics but still — we want to promote population control in Egypt. All of Egypt's problems would be less acute today if it were still the country of 40 million people it was back in 1981. (It is now 83 million).
How can the United States achieve its ends? Here is the list of things I am sure the Obama administration is pushing.
First, the United States, should welcome a transition to a more democratic Egypt. And the most rapid possible transition will come from the election of a new president and a promise of early and free parliamentary elections.
Of course, early and free parliamentary elections would open the door to an unwelcome political presence of the Muslim Brotherhood political presence.
Egypt is not exactly a constitutional society, but it does have a constitution. That document places responsibility for day-to-day administration in the hands of the leader of the largest party in Parliament, while reserving defense and foreign affairs to the president. That makes it a good trade: A Soleiman presidency uncontested by the Muslim Brotherhood for acceptance of a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister if that's how the elections shake out.
Although U.S. power to influence events is limited, it is real.
The U.S. holds at least three major assets in its arsenal of influence with Egypt:
1) The current flow of direct aid to Egypt's armed forces. Without U.S. assistance, the Egyptian army would rapidly deteriorate in effectiveness, prestige, and very, likely pay.
2) The current flow of economic aid to Egypt — plus the potential ability to increase the distribution of subsidized bread in Egypt to appease economic discontent.
3) Egyptians should be aware that a radical turn in their politics might provoke Israel to reclaim the Sinai — and that only American interposition can prevent Israel.
Over the longer term, U.S. institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy should provide assistance to Mubarak's old New Democratic Party to help transform the NDP into a modern vote-competing entity, on the model of Mexico's PRI. Old and seemingly discredited ruling parties have been able to gain votes if they adapt to more democratic conditions. That has happened in Mexico and — not to make a moral equation, just a political science analogy — the former communist parties of Poland and Hungary, and elsewhere.
Democracy is always an American interest, and of course the United States should, must and will welcome a transition to a more democratic Egypt. America has other interests too, and it should not hesitate to assert them. Who else will?
In asserting them, the United States should avoid the tempting mistakes of either sentimentalizing the protesters or over-committing to an untenable status quo. America instead should follow the advice of that canny conservative, Prince Tancredi Falconieri, in Lampedusa's great novel, The Leopard: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same."