President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation — the key demand of protesters in the streets of Cairo — would trigger snap presidential elections under the Egyptian constitution and could make political reform more difficult, experts say.
That's one of the quandaries opposition groups face as they try to chart an uncertain path to democracy. The difficulties are compounded by a lack of trust between Egypt's embattled rulers and the opposition groups they tried to silence for decades.
Sunday saw a tentative start toward transition, even as Mubarak insists he'll stay in power until his term expires in September, when elections are scheduled.
Vice President Omar Suleiman, appointed by Mubarak shortly after the Jan. 25 outbreak of protests, agreed in a meeting with major opposition figures that a committee should propose constitutional reforms by the first week of March. This would include allowing more candidates to run for president and imposing term limits on the presidency.
Still, the path to free and fair elections is packed with obstacles, lawyers and constitutional experts say.
If Mubarak were to resign now, as many protesters demand, presidential elections would have to be held within 60 days, according to the existing constitution. The current electoral rules impose many restrictions on who could run, heavily favoring the old regime, and could not be changed during the run-up to the elections, legal experts said.
"What has been the core opposition demand, that Mubarak resign immediately, does not get them what they want," said Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University. "They get rid of Mubarak personally, but it kicks into gear all sorts of constitutional procedures that would really complicate things enormously."
The U.S. has been struggling to strike the right tone. On Saturday, Frank Wisner, a retired American diplomat involved in contacts with Mubarak, said the Egyptian leader's role "remains utterly critical in the days ahead while we sort our way toward a future."
However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later recalibrated, saying the U.S. is throwing its weight behind the nascent transition efforts in Cairo, including the outreach to opposition groups. "It takes time to think those through, to decide how one is going to proceed, who will emerge as leaders," she said. "The principles are very clear. The operational details are very challenging."
Even some of Mubarak's harshest critics in Egypt say the autocratic ruler of 29 years may have to stay a little while longer, if only as a figurehead, to help set in motion some of the reforms.
"It's complicated," Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human rights lawyer, said of the transition. "It would have been much easier had we succeeded in bringing down the regime through this uprising."
Under one of several proposals being floated, Mubarak would hand many of his powers to Suleiman, who would then negotiate with the opposition on constitutional reforms needed for ensuring fair elections.
However, under existing rules, any constitutional amendments would have to be approved by parliament.
This could pose a problem because the 518-member legislature — chosen in November elections marred by what many say was blatant fraud — is packed with Mubarak allies from the ruling National Democratic Party.
In his first response to the protests, Mubarak promised last week to review legal appeals against many of the lawmakers, after those challenges were initially brushed aside.
Some Mubarak backers now appear to be promoting parliament as the vehicle of change.
"We have to develop the sovereignty of the parliament, so we can change the constitution, after discussions with the opposition," said Abdullah Kamal, an NDP legislator and editor of the state-owned daily Rose el-Yousef. "It has to change the constitution before there can be an election."
However, former NDP member Hala Mustafa, who now sides with the opposition, said any talk about retroactively addressing charges of election fraud — likely a time-consuming process — is an attempt by the regime to stall.
"This is the manner of the regime, to gain time," said Mustafa, a former member of the NDP's policy planning committee. "That's why there is a real gap of trust and confidence."
Mustafa said the speediest path toward change is to have Mubarak put constitutional amendments needed for fair elections before the current parliament and get them approved.
"Whatever the president will say (to members of parliament), they won't say no," she said. "If he wants to stay (in office) under the pretext that he will do the handover of power in a smooth way, this is the way to do it. Otherwise, why is he here?"
Others also envision a brief interim role for Mubarak, but propose a more complex path.
Mubarak should issue decrees lifting the country's decades-old state of emergency and push through the constitutional reforms concerning future elections, said Bahgat, the human rights lawyer.
Those changes, once approved in a referendum, would clear the way for Mubarak's resignation and presidential elections. The new president would launch a complete constitutional overhaul, to be approved in a second referendum, before parliament elections are held.
Analysts say that any path to democracy will be difficult, particularly because the situation in Egypt remains volatile.
"The opposition needs good faith, or they need compulsion and that comes from the outside," said Clark Lombardi, a law professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The U.S. has been pushing whatever leverage it has."
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.
- President Hosni Mubarak s