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After Mubarak, What's Next for Egypt?

anti-government protesters celebrate
Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir square on Feb. 11, 2011, after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Cairo erupted with joyful dancing, singing and cries of triumph as Mubarak's 30-year rule came to an end following more than two weeks of mass protests. Getty Images/Patrick Baz

Credit the Egyptian people. They forced their longtime leader, Hosni Mubarak, first to abandon his powers, then to flee his presidential palace and finally to abandon his office. Mubarak's effort to hold onto his title even as he handed over the powers of his office to his hand-picked Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was not enough. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square greeted that effort by holding high the soles of their shoes, indicating their disrespect for Mubarak.

Mubarak and his family left quietly for their personal compound in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, in essence a self-imposed exile within his own country. The former air force commander who has ruled Egypt with an iron hand for 30 years might have gotten out of Cairo with his dignity only badly bruised, but he couldn't hold on even to that. Mubarak formally quit today, an act of humiliation for a famously proud man.

A former Arab diplomat described the events of the past few weeks as "Facebook meets the Egyptian museum."

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Over a period of several weeks in an ongoing demonstration that was, overall, a remarkably peaceful exercise given the size of the crowds in central Cairo, the message finally got to the top. In the final struggle between Mubarak and his people, the people won.

Where Egypt goes from here is unclear. The hope and aim of most Egyptians is that a real democracy will emerge. With the army in control for the moment and elections scheduled for September there are other possibilities which are less desirable.

Washington of course looks for "an orderly transition" with a democratic outcome. At the same time, the Obama administration will watch closely to see what role the Muslim Brotherhood plays as the next chapter of the country's political history unfolds. Some experts caution the group is not a political party but only a religious group which adheres to Sharia law. They warn against the danger of thinking the group might be able to play a constructive role in politics.

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As Egyptians move ahead the Obama administration will find itself with much to worry about in the region. Tunisians and Egyptians have already evicted their leaders. Will others follow? America has strong allies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Will they be similarly threatened by popular uprisings?

One lesson learned is just how limited American influence is when it comes to this region. Yes, the U.S. gives millions, even billions, in aid -- but it clearly does not give us the leverage we might expect. We have had good working relationships with many of these leaders, but the people have their own agenda and their own grievances, and we have ignored those for far too long.

It is clear that recent efforts -- mostly rhetorical -- made by the George W. Bush administration and Obama administrations to alter the U.S. policies have not satisfied populations in regions who not only want a change in leadership, but are demanding it. Given the victory of the Egyptian people there is no reason to think demands from the region will stop in Tahrir Square.

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