It took a day longer than expected, but the Egyptian opposition has gotten its way. Less than twenty-four hours after issuing a defiant address to the nation in which he pledged to serve out the remainder of his term, Hosni Mubarak has formally resigned the Egyptian presidency.
Mubarak's departure was by and large predictable. Beset by widening domestic disapproval and bereft of his traditional support from the West, it was clear that Egypt's long-serving strongman would eventually be forced to make an exit. What comes next, however, is far less clear. Indeed, since the start of the unrest some three weeks ago, the depths of the political and economic challenges confronting those seeking a new future for Egypt have become apparent.
After thirty years of authoritarian rule, Egypt lacks anything resembling a pluralistic political infrastructure. Under Mubarak, the national debate was dominated by the ruling (and ironically named) National Democratic Party. Its power and legitimacy were undergirded by the Egyptian military, which over time, and with Mubarak's blessing, became the country's most influential political and economic force. This has left it with a major stake in the old order—and in preserving a hold on power. Indeed, over the past two days, the armed forces have assumed a more formal, and visible, governing role, fanning fears that the country could soon devolve into outright military rule. If it does, convincing Egypt's military to meaningfully share power with the country's disparate political parties will be difficult; compelling it to passively cede its authority to civilian rule harder still.
Economically, the country is in shambles. From a fiscal sense, Mubarak's reign was the Middle Eastern embodiment of the French phrase: l'etat, c'est moi. As Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henniger has noted, the Egyptian state today is a sprawling, Orwellian bureaucracy that employs more than a third of the country's working population. Only serious structural reforms and deep fiscal cuts can make it competitive again. Yet, paradoxically, shrinking the size of Egypt's government will make it all the more difficult to provide jobs for the 10 percent of the country's population that is currently unemployed. The likely products—domestic malaise, surging emigration and rampant social discontent—could soon revive yearnings for precisely the type of strong central control that Egyptians have just rejected.
Ideological competitors, meanwhile, are circling. Egypt's pro-democracy movement may have huge resonance at home and abroad, but greater pluralism isn't a foregone conclusion—or even the most likely one. Rather, if the old order deteriorates further, or collapses outright, the result could well be a political scene dominated by the country's powerful Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a development isn't inevitable, certainly. But Egypt's Islamists are already the best organized faction in the country's ideological constellation and, amid the ferment on Cairo's streets, there are signs that they have begun to seek a more prominent role. Depending on its competition, the Brotherhood's radical, anti-Western agenda could gain far greater currency on the Egyptian street than it has currently, upending the country's economic and political ties to the West in the process.
As for Egypt's democratic forces, they are still inchoate. Without clear leaders or a defined set of demands, the protesters on Cairo's streets may know what they are against, but they don't yet know what they stand for. And because they don't, their democracy drive could be co-opted by more organized elements (like the Brotherhood), or wither under the pressure of its own internal contradictions. Even if it remains viable, Egypt's opposition movement is likely to face a stiff challenge from a newly-entrenched Egyptian military reluctant to share power or relinquish meaningful control.
All of which is a long way of saying that, while they may now be savoring their hard-fought political victory, Egypt's activists will soon find that ousting Mubarak was the easy part.