Egypt is at a precarious crossroads, about to show the world whether the euphoria of the Arab Spring will succumb to pressures from the powerful elite and traditions of suppression, or whether the idealism expressed primarily by the nation's youth will establish a new order.
President Obama and Congress should not let this moment pass without doing all it can to support the protesters, who seem genuinely committed to risking their lives in the cause of a multi-party government and a constitution that protects minority rights. Egypt's future could be a key to the future of the volatile North Africa-Middle East region, which long has benefitted from peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel.
On Monday, Egypt's interim cabinet handed in its resignation, seemingly in response to weekend street protests that resulted in at least 24 deaths. But the cabinet was hand-picked by the nation's military leaders, and it remains to be seen whether the resignations were little more than a tactic to pacify demonstrators ahead of parliamentary elections.
The military, which took over leadership of the country after protests ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak in February, and which promised a quick transition to democracy, has set onerous conditions on that transition. Those include giving the military veto power over any legislation affecting it, and giving generals considerable power over the process of drafting a new constitution. The military wants to operate independent of any civilian oversight.
This is not even remotely close to the spirit of the revolution or of the greater Arab Spring movement that swept the region earlier this year. The question is whether protesters this time can hold out against the superior firepower of the military.
Egypt has an acute need for a strong constitution guaranteeing the rights of minorities. Earlier this year, the nation's Coptic Christian minority came under violent attack by religious extremists, with no protection from government forces. Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose presence boosted the cause of protests against Mubarak earlier this year, has refused to join in this time. That is most likely because the brotherhood is expected to sweep many of the parliamentary elections, giving it an upper hand in drafting the constitution. If liberty and rights become a matter for majority rule, the nation has little chance for peace and prosperity.
In the midst of this political turmoil, Egypt also is facing a looming economic crisis brought on by investors fleeing the troubled country. Egypt's foreign reserves have slipped considerably as the nation tries to protect its pound against inflationary pressures. Inflation was the catalyst for the first mass protests against Mubarak.
If nothing else, Egyptian protesters have shown they won't settle for less than reforms that lead to real liberty. Whether they can force the point against the military and other powers remains to be seen. Given American interests — economic, political and strategic — in the area, Washington should be focused on influencing the outcome.