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Focusing on how soon Mubarak must leave misses the point

The key is how soon an election for a new government can be organized and how free and fair that election will be.

It certainly appears that Hosni Mubarak is engaging in a rope-a-dope strategy. (Rope-a-dope refers to a Muhammad Ali strategy in which he would focus on defense, allowing his opponent to punch himself silly without being able to deliver a knockout blow. When the opponent was exhausted, Ali would then go on the attack.)

Given what’s going on in the street, I can certainly understand and sympathize with the Egyptian protesters urgent desire to see President Mubarak resign and leave Egypt, immediately.

Right after Pres. Obama made his statement on the situation yesterday, the U.S. commentariat bought into the narrative that Obama’s statement had let the protesters down by not joining their demand that Mubarak leave immediately.

But the focus on how soon Mubarak must leave is being overdone.

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The key is how soon an election for a new government can be organized and how free and fair that election will be.

If Mubarak resigned today and left tomorrow, his chosen successor, Omar Suleiman, would be president. Elections will follow, either on the current schedule or on an expedited basis. Suleiman would be the presumptive nominee of the National Democratic Party, which is the Mubarak party, the party of the ruling elite, and the party that has won every election since it was created, in large part rigging the elections into a classic I-win-you-lose system.

It’s easy to imagine Suleiman winning such an election, which would certainly create the possibility of the continuation of the status quo, minus Mubarak, who will be consigned the life of an octogenarian billionaire.

I suppose it’s possible that a silent majority of Egyptians wants that outcome. I doubt it, but Egypt has a population over 80 million and our attention for the past two weeks has been focused on the million or so of them protesting in the streets.

The real key to long-term change, at least in the political system, is a set of fair election rules and a credible mechanism for enforcing them, including a substantial role for international election observors. That will take some time to organize.

Obama’s brief statement of Tuesday, that he had told Mubarak that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and it must begin now,” and that the transition must lead to “free and fair elections,” seems to have the right emphasis, as long as it isn’t taken in Cairo as an excuse to stall and execute the rope-a-dope.