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Egypt's dilemma

Our view: With the generals back in charge, Egypt's transition to democracy just got a lot harder

3:51 PM EDT, July 8, 2013

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Nobody ever said Egypt's transition to democracy would be easy. But yesterday's violence in which dozens of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed and hundreds wounded by security forces outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo has made that country's path from dictatorship to democracy infinitely more difficult.

Last week's military coup against Egypt's first democratically elected president was proof enough that Egyptians are still a long way from realizing the ideals of representative government and rule of law inspired by the Arab Spring. Opponents of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Morsi had gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square a week ago to demand his ouster, and the crowds were jubilant when Egypt's military stepped in on Wednesday to remove him from office.

But since then the deeply divided country has struggled to right itself amid increasingly violent clashes in the streets between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators. The unrest culminated in Monday's early morning confrontation between a large crowd of Mr. Morsi's supporters and army units of the presidential security detail who reportedly are holding the ousted leader under house arrest at their headquarters. Early reports suggest that pro-Morsi protesters tried to storm the building and that the army responded by shooting into the crowd, killing at least 40 people and injuring many more.

The incident, which Mr. Morsi's supporters are calling a "massacre," prompted the sole Islamist party that had supported the coup to withdraw from talks with liberal and secular opposition groups aimed a forming an interim government. The conservative Nour Party, which last week apparently succeeded in blocking the appointment of liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister after charging he couldn't be trusted to give Islamists a fair shake, said yesterday's deaths left it no choice but to pull out of negotiations altogether.

With political talks at a standstill and the military now effectively running the country, the future of Egypt's democratic revolution has been thrown into even deeper doubt. Mr. Morsi's supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party adamantly reject the extra-constitutional process that led to his ouster and are threatening to remain in the streets indefinitely unless he is reinstated to office. Meanwhile, both the military and the liberal and secular opposition say they want an interim government composed of representatives from all Egypt's political factions, including Islamists. But that can't happen if not a single Islamist party agrees to participate in the transition.

The impasse has highlighted a dilemma facing all the countries that have been affected by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring: How to create a Western-style, pluralistic democracy that respects human rights while avoiding either an illiberal democracy, such as the one Mr. Morsi sought to impose by silencing liberal and secular voices and attempting to create an Islamic state, or a return to military dictatorship, such as the one that ruled Egypt for decades before former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power two years ago.

What Egypt needs is something like an Arab Nelson Mandela, a leader who can transcend the deep social, economic and religious fissures in Egyptian society that tend to make any attempt at political reform an all-or-nothing affair. Whether Mr. ElBaradei or anyone else could have fulfilled that unifying role remains the big question. But it's surely not a task the military, which has its own interests at stake, is up to performing. There's no doubt Mr. Morsi wasn't up to the job either, but that doesn't mean that whoever eventually succeeds him is likely to fare any better.

The country will face huge problems no matter who is running the show, and the U.S.' leverage to influence what happens next may drop precipitously if it is forced by law to cut off the billions in annual foreign aid that mostly goes to support Egypt's military. For that very reason the Obama administration so far has avoided calling the intervention by Egypt's generals a coup, which would immediately require it end all aid to that country's armed forces.

But however the administration chooses to label events in Egypt, it's clear this is a problem that ultimately only Egyptians can solve. Having allowed the military back into the political arena, and notwithstanding the legitimate complaints regarding Mr. Morsi and the direction he was taking the country, Egyptians may now find it a lot harder than they thought to put that genie back in the box.