It is now undeniable that the political "road map" touted by Egypt’s military-backed regime is leading not to a restored democracy but to a new autocracy that grants the armed forces exceptional powers and excludes Islamic movements from the political system.
That presents the Obama administration with a choice: It can accept that a key U.S. ally is returning to authoritarian rule or adopt tougher sanctions in the hope of encouraging a change of course. The administration can no longer credibly claim — as Secretary of State John Kerry did during his visit to Cairo last month — that Egypt is moving toward a legitimate democratic system.
A new constitution issued this week and scheduled for a referendum next month ensures that Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the leader of last July’s coup, will continue to rule Egypt indefinitely, either through his present post of defense minister or, more likely, as president. The former job would be enough, since the constitution exempts the military and its budget from civilian control, requires the president to consult with the generals on key matters and allows military courts to try and imprison any civilian they deem a threat.
Police, intelligence services and the domestic security apparatus also are exempted by the constitution from civilian courts and oversight. Any law affecting the police, who have been responsible for massive and systematic human rights abuses, must be coordinated with a new Supreme Police Council. As Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment put it, "the leaders of the institutions of the pre-2011 state have seen... an opportunity to retake — and even broaden — the powers they enjoyed under (former president Hosni) Mubarak."
The constitution bans political parties based on religion, which could mean the exclusion of the parties that gained two-thirds of the vote in Egypt’s parliamentary election two years ago. As it is, almost every top leader and thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party are imprisoned, making its participation in elections a practical impossibility.
Repression is no longer limited to the Islamists. In the last week, three of Egypt’s best-known liberal secular activists have been arrested under a new law that bans unapproved political demonstrations. That all were leaders of the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime is not an accident: Egyptian press reports say prosecutors are preparing charges against other liberal leaders who oppose military rule.
The Obama administration has said its policy has been to promote democracy in Egypt while cooperating with the military on "core interests." But a State Department spokesman on Tuesday refused to take a position on the new constitution, even though the administration had previously said it opposed provisions such as military trials for civilians.
Ignoring Egypt’s reversion to autocracy is not an acceptable U.S. policy. It breaks faith with those the United States should be supporting and tells the Egyptian military that it will pay no price for repression. The right U.S. strategy would be to suspend aid and cooperation with the regime until it frees political prisoners and adopts a genuine democratic path. At a minimum, the United States should tell the truth about what is happening in Egypt.