Egypt’s military regime is taking a major step this week toward installing an autocracy more repressive than any the country has known in decades. Citizens are being summoned to the polls to vote on a new constitution that exempts the army, police and intelligence services from civilian control and allows these services to prosecute in military courts anyone they deem threatening. Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who led a coup d’etat in July against an elected Islamist government, has hinted that he will take the vote as a mandate to become Egypt’s next president.
The referendum is being staged in a climate that makes a fair ballot impossible. Activists who have tried to peacefully campaign for a no vote have been arrested and prosecuted on charges of trying to change the constitution’s “principles.” Public demonstrations are banned, and police have killed 27 people and arrested 703 who tried to protest on the past three Fridays, according to Human Rights Watch.
Not just Islamists but also secular pro-democracy leaders are being targeted. Four of the most famous leaders of the 2011 revolution against the previous military-backed autocracy have been jailed on charges of participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Opposition media have been shut down, and three Cairo-based journalists from Al Jazeera have been imprisoned without charge.
Egyptians who vote in the referendum will do so without knowing when the regime will hold the presidential and parliamentary elections it has promised, or which will come first. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out that they also won’t know the rules for drawing election districts, which in the past have been manipulated by the military to exclude opposition parties, or whether the next executive will retain such powers as the right to appoint provincial governors.
The vast majority of voting monitors will be from organizations that favor passage of the referendum; the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which monitored Egypt’s 2012 elections, have been expelled from the country.
Under these circumstances, it ought to be obvious that the “road map” to democracy that Gen. Sissi is promoting is no more than a fig leaf covering the restoration of the pre-2011 regime, in a more malignant form. The Obama administration, however, is maneuvering toward resuming all U.S. aid programs to Egypt.
A provision in an omnibus spending bill being prepared for congressional approval would, at the administration’s urging, exempt Egypt from a law requiring a cutoff in aid in the event of a military coup. It would allow $1 billion in annual aid to resume if the administration certifies that Egypt “has held a constitutional referendum and is supporting a democratic transition.” Another $500 million would be authorized with certification that parliamentary and presidential elections have been held and that the “government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically and implement economic reforms.”
Those certifications cannot be honestly made. Nor would they be wise: The military’s repressive methods cannot stabilize Egypt, much less address its severe economic and social problems.
If President Barack Obama believes the United States should sanction a new autocracy in Egypt, he should make the case for doing so. Otherwise his administration should side with those Egyptians who continue to fight for a genuine democracy — starting with those who have been imprisoned.