The Obama administration is supporting a deal with Egyptian officials in which President Hosni Mubarak will resign immediately, and delegate power to a military-backed transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman.
This scenario is “under active discussion,” said a senior State Department official. Under the terms of the proposal, the president would not be forced into exile but allowed to take up residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The US is pressing for an “orderly transition” that includes Mubarak’s resignation and a strong role for the military. But the administration insists that a range of options is still under consideration.
“It’s simply wrong to report that there’s a single US plan that’s being negotiated with the Egyptians,” a senior White House official said.
The US, European Union and other international actors calling for a transition consistently stress that the process must be engineered, agreed and driven by Egyptians themselves.
“I understand that discussions have begun,” President Barack Obama said today, adding that “the details will need to be worked out by Egyptians.”
“The only thing that will work is moving (an) orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, a representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people,” he added.
The regime in Cairo has claimed that the unrest is being stoked by foreign interference. US officials declined to name opposition figures with whom they are in contact lest they be tainted by association.
The proposed deal is evidently causing divisions within the ruling National Democratic Party elite and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik today rejected any such plan.
“Having Mubarak as president is a source of security for the country,” he said. “I rule out accepting the proposal of having the president authorize his vice-president.”
His comments confirm that “there is a debate going on inside the inner circle,” said a senior U.S. official.
Nevertheless, a group of independent experts associated with the transitional proposal has been invited to meet with Suleiman.
The “Council of the Wise” has been invited to discuss Article 139 of the constitution, which allows the president to “define the jurisdictions” of one or more vice presidents, said Diaa Rashwan, a member of the group.
Some observers are skeptical that the group articulates the views of the demonstrators and believe the proposed interim arrangement will be rejected by the opposition.
“They do not represent the opposition, and I doubt very much that this solution is acceptable,” said Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID).
“The opposition is now headed by al-Baradei, the Muslim Brotherhood, and several other factions, who insist that they will only accept the head of the Supreme Council of the Courts as interim president,” he told Democracy Digest.
The group does not claim to be the legitimate representative of the protesters, its members insist, but with the fragmented opposition evidently stricken by strategic paralysis, its initiative could help end the current impasse.
Some pro-democracy leaders support the proposal to transfer authority to Suleiman, said Rashwan, director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, but the opposition is unable to reach a consensus, requiring others to take the lead.
“The opposition leadership is so divided that no clear option is available outside the ruling establishment,” he added.
The proposed transfer of power is not without legal complications, as George Washington University analyst Nathan Brown recently noted.
Under Article 82 of the Constitution, the president is empowered to delegate authority to a deputy, but that person is prohibited from initiating constitutional amendments or dissolving the parliament.
Without constitutional reform, the presidential election expected in September would take place under provisions that disadvantage opposition parties and effectively veto a serious rival candidacy to the NDP candidate.
But if Mubarak is forced to resign immediately, the constitution dictates that he be succeeded by Fathi Surur, the current speaker of the parliament, who would make “an even worse interim president,” according to Hossam Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty, respectively, executive director and deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
There are ways to resolve the constitutional conundrums, they argue. Before Mubarak resigns:
- he should sign a presidential decree transferring authority to his vice president (just as he delegated power to the prime minister when hospitalized in 2004 and 2009) and issue decrees lifting the “state of emergency” and ordering the release or trial of prisoners held in administrative detention;
- an independent commission of judges, constitutional law experts, civil society figures and all political groups should amend the constitution to ensure free and fair presidential elections, and put the amendments to a referendum.
A “diverse caretaker government” would be appointed as an interim authority until the presidential election which would legitimize a subsequent re-drafting of the constitution that paves the way for free and fair parliamentary elections.
The catalyst for change will come from military, observers suggest, which is deeply concerned at the fraying of Egypt’s social fabric, the soaring economic cost of the unrest and the possible harm to its own reputation as it will be left to manage a difficult post-Mubarak transition.
“It is a political striptease, where Mubarak throws off garment after garment,” he said. “Mubarak is dealing as if his government is still strong. But he doesn’t realize the old methods no longer work.”