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Egypt needs buffer period

By Chantal Thomas, Special to CNN
  • Chantal Thomas: Egyptians feel hopeless; they need to begin process of creating bright future
  • She says to get there they must start lawful transition of power with Hosni Mubarak set to leave
  • She says protesters won't accept constitutional succession
  • Thomas: Opposition must deliver change while preserving peace; West should help

Editor's note: Chantal Thomas is law professor at Cornell University and a former law faculty member at American University in Cairo.

(CNN) -- There is no question that Egyptians deserve a brighter future. Though the country has implemented many liberal reforms in its investment laws and economic policies, the reality on the ground is that most young people today (and it is a very young population) feel little hope for the future.

As an educator in Egypt, I witnessed firsthand the frustration of young adults as they faced a closed and corrupt social and political structure. The country needs to begin a long process of increasing public accountability and finding its way toward policies that will ensure sustainable development going forward.

The West and the U.S. government must be willing to support that process. The Middle East continually challenges the U.S. by forcing it to "choose" between encouraging global democracy and ensuring national security. Very often, the U.S. has concluded that democracy in the Middle East poses too great a threat to American national security.

But after living in Cairo for several years, I believe that although there are some extremist elements (as there are anywhere), the vast majority of people simply want to live their lives with peace and security and with some hope for the future for themselves and their families.

Those basic human desires are at the heart of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Egyptian people deserve respect for those rights as much as any nation. The Obama administration must maintain faith in the ability of the Egyptian people to find and exercise their democratic rights peacefully.

But to ensure that this happens, all attention now must be on securing a transition of power that remains within established constitutional procedure and legal practice. This is the middle way between the status quo -- in which constitutional rights and processes have been disregarded by Hosni Mubarak's emergency-state regime -- and the alternative that might arise if public dissatisfaction is allowed to boil over without a timely response by the state.

The Tunisian example is instructive here. Reports on the ground have been that the sudden changes in leadership have left many people who would otherwise be positioned to help lead the country -- lawyers, judges and other professionals -- at a loss for how to step in, and with little in the way of organized political platforms.

In Egypt, opposition political parties have more of an established track record, but it is still important for the country's long-term interests to allow some time for citizens to proceed through public debates and political assessments of would-be successors.

Were Mubarak to resign now, the Egyptian Constitution does lay out instructions for the succession of power. However, succession by members of Mubarak's political party would bring little in the way of democratic benefit, since the perception and likely reality would be that Mubarak would continue to rule from just behind the curtain if he exits the political stage in this way.

Opposition movements may still be too untested to take over in a wholesale change of government, and any new regime crafted out of whole cloth in negotiations with the United States will start to look too much like the remote-controlled government that Mubarak's critics have seen in his close alliance with the West to this point.

So, though demands for Mubarak's immediate resignation are understandable and may even represent the best choice in an ideal world, in real-world terms, the danger of mass upheaval and disorientation may be too great if he were suddenly to go.

Havoc might ensue with the opportunists, who exist in any such situation, well-positioned to take advantage of the public's safety concerns and ready to fill a potential political vacuum.

Egypt needs a buffer period during which political opposition movements can get organized and create a relatively safe transition of government. Here it is absolutely imperative that the international community keep pressing to see that this transition is peacefully carried out.

Make no mistake: Though established constitutional procedures should be followed to maintain national order and safety, constitutional change is needed to open the way for more effective democracy going forward.

The constitutional amendments that Mubarak has endorsed to open national elections are the minimum required. Many lawyers, judges and nongovernmental organizations in Egypt are calling for a new constitution that would bring with it a governmental structure less susceptible to presidential control.

What lies ahead will challenge Egyptian citizens and supporters to deliver change while preserving the peace.

My heart is with the patriots in Tahrir Square calling for democracy, and the Egyptian people deserve no less. I also sympathize with my friends and colleagues there who point out that the worsening of Mubarak's brutalizing tactics over the past few days have undermined any shred of legitimacy left in the idea that his retention of power can be associated with stability.

But at the same time, care and concentration must be devoted to ensuring that, in the exhilaration that accompanies this first taste of political freedom, Egypt's chances for a peaceful transition are not compromised.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chantal Thomas.

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