Hope and risk in Egypt

The compelling scene of celebration on the streets of Egypt today, when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned and left Cairo, was a fitting tribute to the aspirations of 80 million Egyptians and validation to all those around the world who believe in democracy, the power of peaceful protest and the right of all people to seek redress of their grievances. After the shock and confusion last night after Mr. Mubarak failed, in what was billed as his resignation speech, to actually resign, Friday's news sparked an outpouring of hope the likes of which the world has not seen since the fall of communism 20 years ago.

But what comes next will be just as important as the revolution itself. As democratic uprisings throughout history (including ours) have shown, ridding a nation of an autocratic ruler is one thing; producing a stable, enduring, representative government is quite another. For now, power rests in the hands of a supreme council of military leaders, and they have made encouraging, if vague, promises to enact the reforms protesters demand — and, crucially, to not seek to punish of those "honest people who refused the corruption and demanded reforms." The worrisome question is whether and when the military will follow through. A communique from the military indicated that it would lift the state of emergency that has been the law in Egypt since Mr. Mubarak took power 30 years ago and initiate constitutional reforms only after the "current circumstances are over." These developments raise the very real fear that the army could attempt to force the protesters to disperse or renege on its promises when they do — and in the process cause an irreparable rift in Egyptian society.

There is good reason to hope that won't happen. Conscription is mandatory in Egypt, and that gives its military a close relationship with the people, a connection that was evident in its generally neutral stance between the protesters and Mr. Mubarak throughout the three-week revolution. Moreover, the protests are too wide and too deep, and the protesters demands too legitimate, to be dispelled by illusory reforms.

Still, the United States is in a difficult position, as it has been throughout the revolution. The Obama administration has been caught between the concerns for security that had been the basis of America's 30-year support of Mr. Mubarak and the desire to stand by our democratic ideals, as embodied by the protesters. The president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have voiced encouragement for the Egyptian people and reiterated our belief in the human rights of assembly and peaceful petition for redress of grievances. But they have also sought to maintain open communications with the Mubarak regime and Egyptian military in hopes of fostering an orderly transition to democracy. They have been forced to consider concerns about whether a too-rapid push for elections would leave too little time for the heterogeneous opposition to organize itself politically; what a new Egyptian government might mean for Israel; and what might happen if, in a volatile situation, we put our weight behind the losing side.

That hedging has caused frustration to erupt at times among the protesters, who wanted the Obama administration to take a stronger role in pushing Mr. Mubarak out. But we risked backlash then if we sought to stage-manage events in Egypt — Mr. Mubarak alluded to this in his Thursday speech when he said he refused "to hear foreign dictations." We still do. We can offer encouragement and advice as the Egyptian people make the transition to popular rule, but anything beyond that would be wrong. It is a leap of faith to put the fate of so crucial a nation in the hands of an unpredictable democratic process, but it is a leap we must take.

It would be naïve to completely dismiss the concerns about what an abrupt end of the Mubarak regime might bring, or to assume that democratic elections will produce a government that is an unequivocal friend and ally. The victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections is proof of that. But at this point, there is more reason for hope than trepidation.

The protests were largely initiated by a young, educated class of Egyptians who demand freedom and economic opportunity. A picture on the front page of The New York Times this week was telling. It showed young protesters in Western dress around a Diet Coke-strewn table, hunched over their Apple laptops. It would have been entirely believable if the caption had said it was a group of students at College Park. Among the leaders of the protest movement is a Google executive, taking the company's "don't be evil" motto to new heights.

Despite the coincidence of Mr. Mubarak's departure occurring on Feb. 11, the anniversary of Iran's revolution, this is not 1979 Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood, the long-outlawed Islamist group whose potential involvement in a new government has made Israeli leaders and other nervous, was not the driving force behind the revolution, and its leaders have indicated that they desire a government more like those in Turkey and Indonesia than the one in Iran.

That said, there are no guarantees — not that the military will fully follow through on reform, and not that a new Egyptian government would look much like a Western democracy. The one card the United States has to play is the nearly $2 billion in annual aid we have provided to the Mubarak regime. We need to make clear to the military and the people that our continued support is contingent on the establishment of a government that reflects popular will and on Egypt's observance of its treaty with Israel. If that sends the message to the other autocrats we support in the region that our backing is not unequivocal, so be it.