Egyptians are expected to learn the results of their first-ever democratic presidential contest Thursday, but what should have been a watershed moment in that nation has instead turned into a sour reminder of how difficult it will be to overcome an authoritarian past. Before voting was completed, the nation's generals staged what amounted to a military coup by announcing they, not the new president, would control the prime minister, parliament, the national budget and matters of war and peace — all without civilian oversight or accountability.
The question now is not whether the nation will transition from decades of Hosni Mubarak's strongman rule to a secular or Islamic government but whether it will meet one of the most basic qualifications for democratic governance: the principle that the military answers to civilians, not the other way around. No matter who is declared the winner of the presidential race, the Egyptian people must reject the military's action, and the United States and other members of the international community must do everything possible to support them.
The decree by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its announcement that it would name a panel to draft a new constitution enshrining its new powers in law effectively reduced the office of Egypt's president to a rubber stamp for whatever the military decides. The decree followed a decision last week by Egypt's highest court, which is dominated by Mubarak appointees, to disband the Brotherhood-led parliament on the grounds that a third of the members of its lower house had been elected unlawfully. The parliament was supposed to take the lead in drafting a new constitution, but on Monday the army blocked lawmakers from entering the building where the legislature meets.
Egyptians who had seen the elections as a crucial step toward democratic self-rule accused the military of hijacking the process in order to maintain its iron grip on power. On Monday, the army seemed to soften its rhetoric in an effort to win over supporters of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq and others who opposed the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Shafiq has presented himself as someone who could bring stability to the country and provide an alternative to a government dominated by Islamists like the Brotherhood, even if that meant bringing back some elements of the old police state.
It's unlikely that's what the demonstrators inCairo'sTahrir Square had in mind last year when they gathered in the thousands to protest Mr. Mubarak's 30-year rule, and it's unlikely that a majority of Egyptians today are willing to settle for a situation in which nothing has changed except for a new face on the old regime. Many now believe the military never had any intention of instituting serious political reform or submitting to the authority of an elected civilian government. As a result, Egypt could find itself engulfed in another wave of popular protests in which liberal and secular groups join the Muslim Brotherhood in protesting the military's usurpation of power. But unlike the protests that unseated Mr. Mubarak, the demonstrations this time could put the army squarely against the citizens it is pledged to protect.
The U.S. has proceeded cautiously up to now in its response to Egypt's move toward democracy, largely out of concern that it not be seen as interfering with the process by which the Egyptian people determine their own future. Egyptians carried out their revolution, and they must be the ones who make it work. At the same time, the U.S. has important interests in the success of a stable, democratic Egypt, whatever party eventually takes power, and it must make clear to Egypt's military leaders that they cannot expect to continue receiving billions of dollars in aid if they defy their people's demands for reform. An unstable, undemocratic Egypt with a military that can remain in power only through the use of force is in no one's interest. Such a situation would be a serious liability for the U.S. as well as its partners in the region, and American officials need to drive that message home to the generals in no uncertain terms.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun