Cliff May

The Egyptian military is Egypt’s most respected institution and the most likely to survive the current turmoil. After all these years of providing funds, equipment and training to Egypt’s military, the Pentagon has cultivated allies – Egyptian officers who are disciplined and capable, who want to see their country become free, democratic and prosperous, and who do not want to find themselves taking orders from mad mullahs and scowling Islamist intellectuals. They also grasp Egypt’s need for continuing U.S. military aid.

Obama ought to be empowering American officers to reach out – in confidence -- to their Egyptian colleagues, urging them to take charge. Their duty is to prevent anarchy after President Hosni Mubarak’s long-awaited retirement – which they should arrange to begin as soon as possible.

One officer must take the helm. He would make clear that he has no personal ambitions. His mission is simply to prepare the nation for free and fair elections. When? As soon as possible – but no sooner. Sufficient time must be allowed for new political parties to be organized as they could not while Mubarak was in power. Currently, the only well organized opposition in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a more nefarious organization than many people understand.

The most likely candidate to lead the transition appears to be Gen. Omar Suleiman who last week was named to the post of vice president – a post Mubarak had never before been willing to fill. Others possible successors to Mubarak include former air force chief Ahmed Shafiq, Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, armed forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Annan.

Former IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei would be a bad choice. He has been an expatriate for years and has no domestic base in Egypt. He was overly solicitous of Iran’s despots in his previous job, and he is overly solicitous of the Muslim Brotherhood now. What’s more, he is no friend of America. Besides: El Baradei wants to run for president himself. As noted, the transition leader should not be a candidate.

The transition government would guarantee freedom of speech, press and assembly – necessary if the election campaign is going to be a genuine battle of ideas. A system would be put in place for election monitoring, to make sure ballots are cast secretly and counted accurately. Iran’s first election, in 1979, was neither free nor fair. I was there. I covered it. But most diplomats and journalists pretended it was just fine, lest they offend Iran’s new rulers.

Perhaps the drafting of a new constitution would begin. Remember that the first US presidential election was in 1789 -- following the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 which gave the country what Benjamin Franklin described as "a Republic - if you can keep it."

The above is not my plan. It is based on what leading figures in the secular opposition Wafd party favor. What could go astray? Quite a lot – starting with the fact that Iran’s rulers can be expected to provide support to the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups intent on transforming Egypt into an “Islamic Republic,” a Sunni version of Iran – and my guess is they’ll know how to keep it, e.g. through oppression and election fraud.

That brings us back to Bush’s democratization policy. It fell short, in my opinion, by emphasizing the holding of elections rather than the process of nurturing democratic habits and building democratic institutions that guarantee basic human rights to all. Recall how Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006: The U.S. facilitated an election campaign and allowed Hamas, an armed terrorist militia, to make believe it was just a political party. Hamas restricted fundamental rights and freedoms even during the campaign. That led to an election featuring one man, one vote -- one time. Since Hamas’ victory, there has been no serious discussion of holding another election in Gaza and Gazans enjoy no rights, though they do enjoy some entitlement courtesy of European and American taxpayers. During Bush’s final two years in office, the Freedom Agenda withered on the vine.

Even if the transition to a more democratic era can be successfully managed, enormous challenges lay ahead. More than a third of Egyptians live in dire poverty. Egypt needs an economy that creates millions of new jobs. That will require Western investment which will not arrive if Egypt become radicalized or infested by terrorists or hostile to infidels.

And Egypt needs peace. Over and over, we hear over that Mubarak has “served U.S. interests by maintaining peace with Israel.” Does anyone imagine that it would be in the interest of the average Egyptian to fight another war against Israel? Does anyone imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies care?

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.