In a scene reminiscent of protests earlier this year, Egyptians have taken to Tahrir Square demanding the resignation of the country's military leaders, who have been in power since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February. The response by the Supreme Council of the Armed forces (SCAF) has done little to slow the protests, leaving the military with two options going forward: an increasingly violent crackdown (the path that, regrettably, the Army seems to have chosen), or an honest attempt to accede to the protesters' demands and hand over power.
The Obama administration needs to honestly and immediately side with those calling for a civilian-led, democratically elected government and refrain from giving any further credence to what has become a military junta bent on re-establishing authoritarian rule.
Some observers will undoubtedly try to diminish the significance of these protests by comparing them to the protests in January; they say that those protests were against a 30-year dictatorship while the SCAF has only been in power for months, that those protests represented a wide-base of Egyptian society, while these are dominated by only an activist core. But, in reality, these protests are part of the very same revolution that toppled Mubarak, they address the same authoritarian tendencies and they have grown to encompass the entirety of Egyptian society once again as a result of the brutality of security forces. Actions undertaken by the police and later the army have left at least 29 dead, more than 1,500 wounded, and a city blanketed by tear gas.
Although the cabinet led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf stepped down as a result of the initial crackdown by security forces and the SCAF has promised to hand over power to a president no later than July 2012, these measures fail to address the true demands of the Egyptian people and serve to further the divide between the citizenry and a government that considers itself above the law. Protesters don't want to wait for elections next July; they want a government that can be held accountable for its actions, not one that convicts ordinary citizens in unfair military trials, attempts to enshrine a privileged position for itself in a unilaterally developed constitution, and murders its own citizens in the streets.
Similarly, the Obama administration's criticism of the SCAF, while rightly denouncing its treatment of protesters and calling for an end to the violence, does little more than defend its decision to turn over power next summer.
The Obama administration has to be careful not to make the same mistakes it did when it was slow to address the anti-Mubarak protests and hesitant to side with Egyptian citizens calling for democracy. Increasing diplomatic pressure on the country's military leaders and, should that fail, withholding aid to the Egyptian armed forces, will be necessary if the U.S. wants to show that it has learned something from the Arab Spring.
The State Department has every right to be concerned about the uncertainty of elections and the shape that a successor government will take. Overblown fears of an Islamist takeover, however, are no excuse for hampering democratization and will only put a strain on U.S.-Egyptian relations when a democratically-elected government does eventually come to power. As Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid suggests, any attempt to cancel or delay the parliamentary elections would be a serious misstep for a government that is quickly losing the confidence of the people and a blow to prospects for democracy in Egypt.
The Obama administration needs to stand by its remarks condemning the SCAF's crimes against the Egyptian people, but it must also take the next step of supporting the protesters' demands for civilian leadership, if not for the sake of the innocents being killed and wounded, then for a rapidly deteriorating view that Egyptians have of a U.S. more committed to “stability” than human rights.
Photo Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy