Egypt's descent into chaos

Despite allowing former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to meet with a representative of the European Union and others this week, the generals who deposed the country's first democratically elected leader last month clearly are in no hurry to restore civilian rule. The country is sliding into chaos amid violent clashes between pro-Morsi demonstrators and security forces that have killed scores of protesters and wounded hundreds more. But that seems to suit the generals just fine so long as it offers them an excuse to hang on to the power they have seized.

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said Tuesday that Mr. Morsi appeared to be doing well at the unnamed military facility where he and his top advisers are being held. But her remark that the ousted leader had access to news reports and is aware of what is happening in his country probably was just a diplomatic way of reporting that he hasn't been tortured or killed yet — hardly cause for reassurance given the tumult erupting on the streets.

If the military truly wished to calm the situation, it would have released Mr. Morsi long ago and allowed him to communicate with his supporters and his family. It wouldn't be now threatening to use force to break up an encampment of pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo, and it wouldn't have detained dozens of Muslim Brotherhood officials or shut down the group's media outlets and turned the state news channels into government propaganda organs whose lies and distortions are obvious even to the liberal and secular opposition groups who initially backed the army's intervention. Doubtless those groups are now rethinking the wisdom of having thrown in their lot with military men who promised to protect Egypt's fragile democratic experiment but whose real motivation appears to be protecting their own power and influence.

Meanwhile, the government has resurrected old charges implicating Mr. Morsi in the deaths of soldiers and guards during a 2011 prison break that occurred under the regime of former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi's supporters are convinced the generals want to bring him to trial on trumped-up charges that could send him back to prison for years if he is convicted — a foregone conclusion, in their view, given that the judges hearing the case would all be appointees of the same military clique that's now calling the shots.

What happens next in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, could have a profound effect on all its neighbors where fledgling democratic movements have begun to take root. Egypt appears caught between the impulse toward an illiberal democracy dominated by Islamists (such as the one Mr. Morsi sought to install) and an old tendency to fall back on military rule (which the generals seem bent on reimposing). If it can't somehow resolve that tension and transcend it, the prospects for realizing the ideals inspired by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region appear slim.

The U.S. has a big stake in preventing Egypt from tumbling into the civil and sectarian strife that the military has fomented. The country's economy is in shambles, unemployment has skyrocketed, and its political structures are paralyzed as opposing factions become more polarized by the day. The traditions of relative civility, tolerance and respect for the rights of minorities that long set Egypt apart from its neighbors have evaporated overnight. In their place has arisen a culture of widespread distrust of the country's governing institutions, sectarian hatred and the demonization of political opponents.

Yet America's ability to influence events in Egypt is limited. The most important leverage the U.S. has is the $1.5 billion in annual aid it gives to Egypt, the vast majority of which goes to the very military that now is undermining the country's stability. Threatening to cut off aid could easily backfire, because the one thing the generals fear more than the loss of American dollars is losing their position as the most powerful force in Egyptian society. The generals also realize, of course, that other incentives exist for the U.S. to keep up its aid: Most of it comes right back in the form of weapons purchases from American defense contractors — military jets, tanks, helicopters, small arms and the like.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to call Mr. Morsi's ouster a coup, which would legally require it to suspend aid payments, and a large bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate effectively backed him up on Wednesday. The sad result is that Egypt's slow descent into the unthinkable — a failed state in the heart of the Mideast bankrolled by U.S. tax dollars — remains an all-too-real possibility.

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