President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt's announcement that he will not run in the presidential election in September resembled Richard Nixon's saying, in the very act of resigning, "I've never been a quitter." Mr. Mubarak said he had "not been intent" on re-election. In any case, as with Mr. Nixon, it was the right thing to do.
Opposition groups should now be willing to enter into conversations with the government; they should no longer insist upon Mr. Mubarak's immediate resignation as a precondition. The Committee for Change, which ranges from Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, a former liberal presidential to the Muslim Brotherhood, has understandably taken this position after decades of tyranny, but attempts at humiliation are not a good basis for negotiations.
This opposition coalition has proposed to deal instead with the armed forces directly, not with the President, his new Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, or the new Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq. But it would not be desirable to simply set aside the political superstructure of this regime, by negotiations between the opposition coalition, on the one hand, and the chief of the defence staff and the commanders of the army, the air force and the navy, on the other.
The statement of the armed forces on Monday was statesmanlike and patriotic: recognizing the legitimacy of the Egyptian people's grievances, upholding peaceful freedom of expression and undertaking not to use force against non-violent protesters, while deploring and denouncing vandalism and looting.
The extraordinary events in Egypt have underlined the degree to which the country's government is based on the armed forces; this is a regime that began with a military coup d'état in 1952 and has not fundamentally changed its nature. Mr. Mubarak rightly said in his speech on Tuesday that he is "a man of army"; he, Mr. Suleiman and Mr. Shafiq are all products of the armed forces; they are in effect its political expression, and the opposition should not now insist on negotiating with a new military junta consisting of the forces' commanders.
The protesters need not go home; many of them should remind the authorities that reform must be undertaken and persisted in. There is much to be done during the transition that Mr. Mubarak spoke of. Free speech should be instituted and practised - including individuals' electronic communications by phone and the Internet, which have been blocked during the crisis. The perennially repressive Emergency Law should be repealed. Constitutional amendments must allow the September election to be conducted fairly and freely.
No democratic movement on this scale has ever been seen before in a Arab country. This is a victory for the public square that should and will reverberate throughout the Middle East.