Thursday marks the 17th day of protests in Egypt. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addressed Egyptians today, but despite expectations he planned to announce his resignation - expectations created by statements of Egyptian government officials - Mubarak insisted he would not step down. Instead, he said he was transferring powers to Vice President Suleiman.
All this sacrifice and protest wasn't simply about the fate of one man. The demand for Mubarak's departure has been a symbol of a larger demand: the demand for democracy. All this sacrifice, all this protest, was not intended to bring about the replacement of Mubarak with a Mubarak clone. Still less, obviously, are protesters looking for a military coup or martial law, two other scenarios which were the subject of considerable speculation today.
There is much more at stake than whether Mubarak resigns from office. Will Mubarak and other Egyptian government officials concede reforms that will put Egypt on a path to democracy? So far, the government has only announced the formation of a committee, packed with its own supporters, to recommend reforms.
"All your demands will be met today," Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told demonstrators in Tahrir Square today.
Four key demands have been constantly lifted up by protesters and opposition parties, which are essential for a credible transition to democracy: ending the arbitrary detention and harassment of journalists, human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators and freeing those who have been detained; ending the state of emergency; allowing free electoral competition in elections; and restoring full judicial supervision of elections.
End arbitrary detentions and release those detained: some reports have put the number of people arrested in Egypt, since massive protests began on January 25, at more than 10,000. Obviously, so long as journalists, human rights workers and peaceful protesters are being arrested without charge, Egypt is not on a path to democracy.
End the state of emergency: in 2008, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights called the emergency law "the main source for violations against human rights," noting "a close relationship between the declaration of a state of emergency" and a pattern of routine torture. The emergency law allows the government to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely and limit freedom of expression and assembly.
Guarantee electoral competition: under current Egyptian law, a candidate for president would need 250 signatures from Egypt's lower and upper houses and municipal councils, all of which are overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party. Thus, under current law, the ruling party has an effective veto over who can run against it.
Restore full judicial supervision of elections: in 2007, the Mubarak government abolished full judiciary supervision over elections, which had served as a minimum guarantee against fraud.
Some of these reforms could be implemented immediately. Others might take more time, but, so far, the Egyptian government has not yet even stated a clear intent to implement them.
Without these reforms, any "orderly transition" in Egypt is likely to be a transition not to democracy, but a transition to dictatorship under a different face.
The Egyptian government - and its Western backers - must ultimately be judged according to whether these reforms take place, regardless of what Mubarak or other Egyptian officials may be saying today.