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The Answer to Egypt’s Problems?

An obscure plan from the 1980s.

President Mubarak’s government may soon collapse. Popular support for him has evaporated, and while the Obama administration has declined to officially take sides in the Egyptian protests, it is clearly looking toward some sort of endgame. But what form would such a transition take? Oddly, the most obvious possibility is a plan that has, in its broad contours, been around since the mid-1980s.

In September 1980, Turkey’s government was overthrown in a military coup, but the military cooperated with interim civilian leaders and ultimately presided over a peaceful democratic transition that included the creation of a new constitution in 1982 and elections in 1983. This example inspired members of Egypt’s nationalistic, business-oriented Wafd Party, which was resurrected—after disappearing in 1952—at about the same time. So in 1984, a plan based on Turkey’s experience was drawn up and presented by Ibrahim Abaza, a member of the executive bureau (and the father of one of this article’s authors), Yusuf Hamed Zaki, a member of the party’s high committee, and a handful of others. It envisioned a military-backed caretaker government that could maintain order on the streets, create a safe political space, and then guide the nation into representative governance. While Egyptian newspapers debated the merits of the plan, the Mubarak regime, which had been in power for only a few years, ignored it. Similarly, several successive U.S. presidential administrations listened politely, but opted not to pressure their allies in Cairo.

Now, former International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Mohammed ElBaradei and his followers are demanding a series of reforms that track closely along these lines. As ElBaradei explained to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, “the next step … as everybody now agrees on, is a transitional period” followed by “a government of national salvation, of national unity” that would “prepare the grounds for a new constitution and free and fair elections” while the “army will be able to control the situation.”

Echoing the Wafd Plan, ElBaradei hopes the military will ensure that President Mubarak flees the country and then keeps the peace during a period of transition to democracy. To safeguard against abuses of power, the opposition plan would ensure that no one figure holds a monopoly of authority within the provisional government. Order would be maintained by the military, while an interim cabinet would handle political matters and the transition to democracy. Cooperation between the two would be critical.

The plan also envisions a gradual, managed transition to open political competition that would give political parties—which have suffocated under Mubarak’s rule—time to put down roots and sprout branches. The process would be designed to mitigate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups that reject democratic principles, without excluding them entirely from the political process. The transition period of a year or more would potentially level the playing field; the Brotherhood has a head start on everyone else, having developed social infrastructure throughout the country, and significant grassroots support.

Egypt would also need an interim president—such as ElBaradei or recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman—who would oversee the drafting of a new constitution that guarantees the liberties of all Egyptians. This is particularly necessary because the political opposition stands unanimously against the current constitution, which is based on socialist and non-democratic principles.

After this transition period yields a governing document and functioning political parties, Egyptians would go to the polls, while the military would ensure the safety of the voters and international vote monitors, who must be invited into the country to observe and certify free and fair elections. 

For President Obama, supporting such a plan would make good sense. It would enable him at last to shun Mubarak and support the Egyptian people, while doing everything possible to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not fill the country’s political vacuum. It should also be attractive to Washington because it relies on the Egyptian military. True, this is the same military that started this mess with the Free Officer’s Coup of 1952, but it still has the trust of the people (it has not fired on the protestors). President Obama might even have a little leverage here, thanks to the estimated $2 billion per year in aid that buys Egypt advanced military hardware.

This is not a plan without risks, but inaction carries risks of its own. Embraced by the reformers and protest leaders, the plan prescribes concrete steps toward democracy while minimizing the likelihood of chaos or Islamist rule. And the fact that it has its origins in the Wafd Party means it is an indigenous idea, not a foreign imposition on the Egyptian people.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at FDD, and a former Wafd Party official.