The compelling scene of celebration on the streets of Egypt on Friday, when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned and left Cairo, was a fitting tribute to the aspirations of 80 million Egyptians and validation to all those around the world who believe in democracy, the power of peaceful protest and the right of all people to seek redress of their grievances. After the shock and confusion Thursday night after Mr. Mubarak failed, in what was billed as his resignation speech, to actually resign, Friday's news sparked an outporuing of hope the likes of which the world has not seen since the fall of communism 20 years ago.
But what comes next will be just as important as the revolution itself. As democratic uprisings throughout history (including ours) have shown, ridding a nation of an autocratic ruler is one thing; producing a stable, enduring, representative government is quite another. For now, power rests in the hands of a supreme council of military leaders, and they have made encouraging, if vague, promises to enact the reforms protesters demand — and, crucially, to not seek to punish of those "honest people who refused the corruption and demanded reforms." The worrisome question is whether and when the military will follow through. A communique from the military indicated that it would lift the state of emergency that has been the law in Egypt since Mr. Mubarak took power 30 years ago and initiate constitutional reforms only after the "current circumstances are over." These developments raise the very real fear that the army could attempt to force the protesters to disperse or renege on its promises when they do — and in the process cause an irreparable rift in Egyptian society.
There is good reason to hope that won't happen. Conscription is mandatory in Egypt, and that gives its military a close relationship with the people, a connection that was evident in its generally neutral stance between the protesters and Mr. Mubarak throughout the three-week revolution. Moreover, the protests are too wide and too deep, and the protesters demands too legitimate, to be dispelled by illusory reforms.
President Obama on Friday affirmed that the United States will remain a friend to all the people of Egypt and that we stand ready to provide whatever aid is wanted and needed. The revolution in Egypt affirmed "the power of human dignity, and it cannot be denied," the president said, and one with deep resonance for the American people. He congratualated the Egyptian military for its role in keeping the peace and protecting the Egyptian people but also insisted that it ensure a transition to a government that is credible with the public, that the reforms be made irreversible and that elections be "fair and free."
Still, the United States is in a difficult position, as it has been throughout the revolution, and it is unclear how much moral force Mr. Obama's words will have. The Obama administration was caught between the concerns for security that had been the basis of America's 30-year support of Mr. Mubarak and the desire to stand by our democratic ideals, as embodied by the protesters. The president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others voiced encouragement for the Egyptian people and reiterated our belief in the human rights of assembly and peaceful petition for redress of grievances. But they also sought to maintain open communications with the Mubarak regime and Egyptian military in hopes of fostering an orderly transition to democracy. They were forced to consider concerns about whether a too-rapid push for elections would leave too little time for the heterogeneous opposition to organize itself politically; what a new Egyptian government might mean for Israel; and what might happen if, in a volatile situation, we had put our weight behind the losing side.
That hedging has caused frustration to erupt at times among the protesters, who wanted the Obama administration to take a stronger role in pushing Mr. Mubarak out. But we risked backlash then if we sought to stage-manage events in Egypt — Mr. Mubarak alluded to this in his Thursday speech when he said he refused "to hear foreign dictations." We still do. We can offer encouragement and advice as the Egyptian people make the transition to popular rule, but anything beyond that would be wrong. It is a leap of faith to put the fate of so crucial a nation in the hands of an unpredictable democratic process, but it is a leap we must take.