Twenty-three days after a military coup, carried out in the name of preserving democracy in Egypt, thousands of people filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday in a highly orchestrated demonstration proclaiming “the love of the people” for Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the beribboned, sunglass-bedecked general who has demanded a popular “mandate” to fight “potential violence and terrorism.” Military helicopters and tanks guarded the crowd while state-run media campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood — whose ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, was charged by prosecutors Friday with murder and espionage.
To judge from these events, Egypt is not moving toward a restart on democracy, a narrative embraced by the Obama administration. Instead the military is setting the stage for a crackdown on the party that won the country’s first democratic elections, as well as the elevation of a new military hero in the fashion of former dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser.
A genuine transition to democracy would require military authorities and the civilian cabinet they installed to open negotiations with Morsi and the Brotherhood movement on a political settlement. Instead the generals appear to have chosen to tar the Brotherhood as terrorist — a tactic that is as provocative as it is unjustified.
Morsi’s government mismanaged the country and sought to concentrate power; since its removal, its leaders have adopted an intransigent stance, insisting on the restoration of the government and organizing mass sit-ins and marches. Yet while there have been reports of isolated shots fired by Islamist militants in demonstrations, there is no evidence that the Brotherhood has adopted violence as a strategy, much less terrorism — which it forswore decades ago. The majority of the some 200 people killed since the coup have been shot by soldiers or pro-government snipers.
Nor do the charges against Morsi, based on his 2011 escape from prison, have the ring of legitimacy. In the climate whipped up by the military’s orchestrated protests and propaganda campaign, it’s hard to see how the ousted president or other Brotherhood leaders could receive a fair investigation or trial.
To their credit, some Egyptian groups that fiercely opposed Morsi’s government have spoken out against Sissi’s actions. A coalition of human rights groups issued a statement Thursday that points out the obvious: Egypt’s military requires no new authorities to fight terrorism, and a “mandate” established by crowds is at odds with the rule of law. The Obama administration, too, delivered a modest gesture of concern by announcing that the delivery of four F-16s to the Egyptian military would be delayed.
That’s unlikely to curb Sissi’s swelling ambition. The United States, after all, is still doing more to support his armed forces than to punish them: Annual exercises are going ahead, and the State Department has embraced a legal stratagem to avoid making a formal judgment about whether the coup was a coup — a determination that would force a full cutoff of military aid.
If the Obama administration does not wish to see extensive repression or the emergence of a new autocracy in Egypt, it needs to do more — and quickly.