Washington - Hosni Mubarak's iron rule crumbles but will not go gently. He still believes himself president of Egypt, although Egypt does not. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square still have work to do to dislodge him - and then to dismantle the system of coercion, cronyism and corruption that sustained the dictator's three-decade rule.
The popular uprising against Mubarak is an occasion to bring out the breathless superlatives -- earthshaking, world-changing, epochal, momentous, transformative. Implications for other Arab autocracies, and thus for the whole world, are far-reaching and profound; crisis meetings are doubtless being held in Riyadh, Amman, Damascus and other capitals. The state of Israel faces a time of high-stakes uncertainty and deep anxiety.
The flowering of homegrown democracy in Egypt, the most populous and culturally important Arab nation, would be a world-historical development of the greatest magnitude. But it is far from certain - not just because Mubarak remains, having transferred "some" of his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman, but also because the overthrow of the Egyptian police state is far from complete.
This should be no surprise to anyone paying attention to what top officials have said in the past few days. Suleiman told interviewers that his country was not yet prepared for democracy and that "we can't put up with" civil disobedience by pro-democracy demonstrators. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he was "infuriated" at pressure from the White House, warning that a sudden departure by Mubarak would lead to chaos.
The officials were particularly adamant at rejecting the U.S. demand that Egypt's "emergency" law, giving the government sweeping powers of arrest and detention, be repealed immediately. That they would blanch at the idea is understandable: Mubarak has kept the country in a technical state of emergency since taking power in 1981. Nobody associated with his regime would have the slightest idea of how to govern without the latitude and impunity that this law provides.
Suleiman, until recently chief of the Egyptian intelligence service, is known to have worked closely with the CIA on the "rendition" program in which captured terrorism suspects were secretly transferred to Egypt -- among other destinations -- for harsh interrogation. Some detainees later said they were tortured while in the custody of Suleiman's agents.
Arbitrary detention and torture have been key implements of state control under Mubarak. The hated secret police sweep down on a restive neighborhood; people are taken into custody; some reappear within days, with fresh injuries; some are missing for months; a few might never be seen again. There can be no true democracy in Egypt without complete reform of the police agencies at every level.
The Egyptian military, by contrast, managed to retain popular support by leaving the dirty work of internal security to the police. In the past few weeks, however, with massive protests roiling the nation, soldiers have been accused in dozens of illegal detentions. One reason for Mubarak's limited surrender of authority may have been the army's unwillingness to see itself converted into a tool of brutal repression.
While Egyptians still respect the military, they also take notice of the lavish privileges that officers enjoy. This is another element of Mubarak's system: the elevation of the military into an elite caste. Officers live in comfortable, well-stocked compounds that are beyond the imagination of most Egyptians. Upon retirement, the brass look forward to having a stake in the military's expanding empire of commercial enterprises. The Egyptian people will ultimately have to decide whether this largesse should continue.
On the salary of a public servant, Mubarak is said to have become vastly rich. Everyone understands that deposed dictators usually manage to keep their millions or billions. But what about the Mubarak allies and cronies who used their relationships with the pharaoh to amass great wealth? What about the buddies and associates of Mubarak's son Gamal? These oligarchs will fight to keep their loot; the people will have other ideas.
The constitution that Mubarak tinkered with Thursday is designed to squelch unauthorized political expression -- not just by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was always the stated reason, but also by secular opposition forces. A new constitution will have to be written. Political parties must be formed to channel the democratic passions of Tahrir Square. New leaders must emerge.
Democratic forces will have to accomplish all this while other Middle Eastern nations use their economic and political leverage to promote "stability" in Egypt -- essentially the status quo, perhaps with a new figurehead.
But the United States has leverage, too, and should use it in ways consistent with American values and ideals. The people of Egypt have chosen the path of democracy, despite the many obstacles ahead. We must walk beside them.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group