The high hopes of the Egyptian people for a peaceful transition to democracy are being thwarted by the brutal tactics of the country's military rulers, who in recent days have launched a bloody campaign of repression against protesters demanding an immediate turnover of power to an elected civilian government. The armed forces, once revered as guardians of the popular uprising that overthrew longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, now appear desperate to cling to power at any cost. Some protest leaders are already calling what is happening a military coup.
Reports from the capital over the last few days have been horrific: Women stripped and dragged half naked through the streets by police in riot gear; civilians beaten, kicked and stomped by government thugs; thousands of men, women and children arrested and thrown into prison. Meanwhile, the military's top general denies his forces are playing any role in the violence and blames the unrest on foreign elements intent on destroying the state.
That's the "big lie" that is the signature art form of totalitarian despots: Tell a whopper, no matter how outrageous or absurd, then repeat it so often people simply tire of disbelieving it. Except in this case, the evidence pouring out of Egypt via the Internet and satellite TV is so overwhelming it has exposed the military's duplicity to the entire world. That the Egyptian army, even knowing that, is resorting to such tactics signals the generals have dropped any pretense of honoring their promise to cede power to the country's democratically elected representatives.
This is not what the protesters who gathered in Cairo's Tahrir square nearly a year ago bargained for. They, like millions of others across the country who supported their movement, were inspired by the example of the peaceful uprising in Tunisia that in January toppled the regime of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And despite some violent clashes between security forces and protesters, Egypt's demonstrators took heart from the refusal of many soldiers to obey orders to fire on the crowds. The feelings of solidarity between soldiers and the protesters in January led many Egyptians to see the army as the guarantor of their democratic revolution.
Now it appears those hopes have been betrayed. The last thing Egyptians wanted to see was the replacement of Mr. Mubarak's dictatorship by a new tyranny of the generals.
Egypt is currently in the midst of parliamentary elections that are supposed to lead to presidential elections next year and the drafting of a constitution. Yet is far from clear how much pressure the moderately Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice party won the largest bloc of votes in the first round of balloting, or Egypt's weak secular and liberal parties will be able to exert to push the military even to stick to its announced timetable for ceding power to civilian elected leaders, let alone to speed up the process.
On the contrary, events suggest that the military's leaders are only interested in maintaining their immunity to civilian oversight and their lucrative and unregulated business ventures, which account for a substantial proportion of Egypt's deteriorating economy. When it comes to implementing fundamental reforms, they have dragged their feet every step of the way. As a result of their unwillingness to relinquish control of the government in any meaningful form, the revolution in Egypt that started a year ago amid such high hopes for the country's democratic future is still far from over, and its result far from certain.