November 21, 2011

THE CAUSE OF the clashes that have killed at least 23 people in Cairo since Saturday is easy to identify: It is the failure by Egypt’s military rulers to unambiguously commit themselves to a plan and a timetable for handing over power to a democratically elected government. The solution is equally clear: The generals must immediately adopt such a road map — one that provides for a political transition in a matter of months.

The first of multiple rounds of voting for parliament is scheduled to begin Nov. 28, and the supreme military council announced Sunday that the balloting would go ahead, despite days of pitched battles between police and demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On Monday the civilian cabinet that the council had appointed to run the country under Prime Minister Essam Sharaf resigned. But neither move addresses the fundamental discontent of the thousands of Egyptians who have gathered in the center of Cairo and other cities, and who threaten to repeat February’s revolution.

That’s because the military has not agreed to form a new government based on the elections, which will not be completed until early next year. It is trying to curb the new parliament’s power over the appointment of an assembly to write a new constitution, while imposing its own overriding “principles” on the new charter. Worst of all, it has postponed a presidential election to an indefinite time late in 2012 or in 2013 — creating the prospect that the military misrule of Egypt will continue for at least another year.

The protesters in Tahrir Square are not seeking radical political solutions. What Egypt’s increasingly angry populace wants is what it demanded nine months ago: a transition to genuine democracy and civilian rule. Only a decisive step by the military to answer that imperative, such as the scheduling of an early presidential election, will stabilize the country. Continued repression, or the postponement of the elections, will only worsen the turmoil.

The United States supplies a large part of the Egyptian military budget, and the Obama administration has defined a democratic transition as a top foreign policy priority. Yet faced with the escalating violence in Cairo, the administration is repeating the mistake it made in January, when it hesitated to push for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. Rather than using its considerable leverage, the administration is deferring to the military council. White House spokesman Jay Carney weakly called Monday for “restraint” from “all sides”; when asked whether the generals should specify the date for a presidential election, he replied, “I don’t want to dictate specifics to Egypt.” Administration officials have resisted congressional proposals that military aid be explicitly linked to a democratic transition.

As during the Mubarak era, some administration officials appear to believe that U.S. interests, including Egypt’s peace accord with Israel, preclude using aid to pressure the military for political change. It is past time to abandon that wrongheaded doctrine. The United States should make clear that further military aid will depend on the establishment of a firm and expeditious timetable for a democratic transition.