NEW YORK – Hosni Mubarak’s seemingly imminent death casts a long shadow over Egypt as it prepares to inaugurate the first freely elected president in Egyptian history.
The deposed president’s lingering exit creates an apt metaphor for a country still writhing with change: In the final, dramatic chapter of his life, Mubarak seems to be cheating the Egyptian people once again, just as he did through 30 years of corrupt and brutal rule.
As Mubarak lies in a military hospital on and off of life support, it feels to many Egyptians as if he is robbing them of the justice they expect. That is, many Egyptians say they want to see Mubarak spend his final years behind bars in the same, filthy prisons that he once filled with anyone who dared to speak out against him – not the more comfortable confines of a military hospital.
Meanwhile Sunday's final vote count showed the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, winning a run-off election over the old regime candidate. Though Morsi officially won the election, he will take office without any clearly defined executive power under an Egyptian military establishment intent on eroding the power of the legislature and the judiciary.
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When the Egyptian High Court and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (both stacked with the sclerotic cronies of the Mubarak era) dissolved the elected parliament last week, they effectively carried out what pro-democracy groups are calling a “coup.”
The military seized nearly absolute power and thereby stole the spirit and the meaning of the presidential election. It was the first time in the thousands of years of Egypt’s long history that the people freely elected their own leader, only to find out that they have a leader who has no real power.
That the military is grabbing back so much power amid the death throes of Mubarak is a theft of the democracy for which so many Egyptian people risked so much by coming out in huge protests 16 months ago, in Tahrir Square and around the country.
A titanic struggle between the executive branch and the military lies ahead and in many ways it will determine the shape of a new Egypt. It pits the rising powers of the Muslim Brotherhood against the fading but still considerable strength of the old regime.
Right now there are far more questions than there are answers about where this is all headed, but the lines in this battle are clear. The ruling military generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have thwarted democracy by claiming the power to appoint the Secretary of Defense and shielding the military budget from parliamentary oversight. If Morsi is going to succeed in his presidency, he will have to find a way to bring the military under civilian rule.
At the end of the day, this battle in Egypt is really about the rule of law. And the Mubarak-era cronies in the military and the judiciary have by most estimates blatantly defied that rule of law.
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So where is the US State Department and where is the White House in using their considerable clout in Egypt to encourage the military to relinquish its power and accept that Egypt needs to find its way forward as a true democracy?
How can the US justify the $1.3 billion in aid it provides to the Egyptian military if its actions do not square with President Obama's historic speech in Cairo in June 2009 when he told the Muslim world that the US reaches out to them with an "open hand" and that democracy is a universal right.
There is a ripple of fear in Washington and among many Americans about the prospect of an Islamist government in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
There is also fear in Israel about whether a Muslim Brotherhood government would honor the 1979 Camp David Accords, which established Egyptian peace with Israel with the understanding that Israel and Palestine would work together to achieve a political settlement.
But those fears – from Washington to Jerusalem – can be irrational and ultimately disabling, as Brookings' Shadi Hamid and other close-to-the-ground analysts in Egypt have consistently pointed out. If the US expects Egypt's new government to uphold the legal treaty it signed with Israel, then wouldn't Washington be wise and just to ensure that the rule of law is upheld by the Egyptian military?
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Obama's Cairo speech from the first year of his presidency was like a morning bird before the dawn of the Arab Awakening, and now the Muslim world is listening very closely to see if Washington will finally square its high-minded rhetoric about democracy with the reality of what is happening on the ground in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
Or, will the US succumb to old fears and opt for a perceived sense of stability over democracy — as it has for so long in the Middle East? If the Arab Awakening offers one lesson, it is that American foreign policy that favored "stability" by backing despotic regimes and thwarting true democracy was actually no stability at all.
That false sense of security should be buried in the tomb that will hold Mubarak.
For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the Egyptian revolution, check out our Special Report "Egypt Votes."