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The risks of drawing out Egypt's leadership transition

The escalating violence and clashes between pro-Mubarak groups and anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square Wednesday are an extremely troubling development in a week of demonstrations that seemed to have turned peaceful, if not jubilant, just the day before. The timing, one day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would not stand for re-election in September, is not only disturbing, but revealing about the perils of leadership transitions.

Some might see Mubarak's pledge not to run again as the beginning of a slow transition toward a new leader. And certainly the fears about a sudden change in power to unknown parties, or the possibility of a sudden leadership vacuum, are understood.

It is impossible to guess how Mubarak's statement should be interpreted, and whether he actually believes he can stay in power for the eight-month duration until the next election. But a transition approaching that length is complex for any leader. For one as embattled as President Mubarak, it's a recipe for chaos.

This is a country of some 80 million people, one that has been run with an authoritarian hand for decades now. This is a place rife with corruption, poverty and malaise--hardly a well-oiled machine that will continue humming along well no matter who the leader is at the top. Calling it unfathomably complex to govern, even for a leader with great support, would be the understatement of the year.

Leadership transitions that occur in the best circumstances are filled with inertia. Action slows down. True progress typically comes to a screeching halt. Even in institutions with well-formed and long-standing succession plans, factions can form. Until the new leader really gets going, people understandably try to determine what will change, which direction things will go and who will hold onto power under the next regime. Lame-duck sessions--whether for a Congress, a president or a CEO--are short for a reason.

But in a place as volatile as Egypt, such a drawn-out transition has the potential to be much, much worse. The much-needed reforms Mubarak has promised would have little weight. The expectation of seismic changes in the country's government could bring current operations to a standstill, inviting even more chaos.

Such a lengthy transition may never come to pass, of course: Every day it increasingly seems possible that a change will come much sooner. President Obama has upped his stance, calling for a transition in leadership to begin now; so have Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and now United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Just as a sudden ouster in Egypt of an ally or the leadership vacuum it could create struck fear in the hearts of global leaders, so should a transition too long in the making.

By Jena McGregor

 |  February 2, 2011; 2:32 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Change management , Crisis leadership , Foreign Affairs , Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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