March 18

SECRETARY OF State John F. Kerry has been a cheerleader for Egypt’s new military regime, repeatedly expressing optimism that it is leading the country back to democracy despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Last week he was at it again: Asked at a congressional hearing when the Obama administration would resume military assistance to the regime of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Mr. Kerry replied, “I’m very, very hopeful that, in very short order, we’ll be able to move forward.”

Mr. Kerry, however, has a problem. Congress passed legislation requiring that he certify that Egypt is taking steps toward democracy before releasing the aid — and Gen. Sissi is moving forcefully in the wrong direction. Thousands of opposition political activists — estimates range from 16,000 to 21,000 — are crammed into prisons, many without charge; journalists are repressed and demonstrations banned; and the general is apparently preparing to announce that he will be a candidate in what looks to be a grotesquely one-sided presidential election.

Consequently, Mr. Kerry would find it difficult to issue the necessary certification. The generals “need to help us help them,” he told House members, “by implementing some of the reforms that we’ve been talking with them about with respect to inclusivity, journalists, some of the arrests and so forth.”

It’s encouraging that Mr. Kerry seems to be connecting a resumption of aid to tangible “reforms” in Egypt. But those words were at odds with his assurance that he would be able to move forward “in the days ahead . . . I mean short term.” A meaningful response on the items he mentioned would require a radical — and most unlikely — change of course by the Sissi regime, which, far from pursuing “inclusivity,” has been seeking to destroy Egypt’s largest Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, while imprisoning the secular leaders of the January 2011 revolution against the previous military-backed autocracy.

Among the many thousands in jail are former president Mohamed Morsi and most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leadership; three respected journalists working for the Al Jazeera network, two of whom hold Western passports; and several of Egypt’s best-known advocates of secular liberal democracy. Activists Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma were sentenced in December to three years in prison for protesting a new law that bans most demonstrations. When they appeared last week for an appeal, they said they had been beaten by guards on their way to the courtroom. Another famous secular leader, Alaa Abdel Fattah, has been held for nearly three months without charge.

Perhaps Mr. Kerry expects that a few prisoners will be freed in order to provide cover for a resumption of U.S. aid. But a genuine transition to democracy is not happening in Egypt, and it’s time for the Obama administration to accept that — and adjust its policy accordingly.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) offered Mr. Kerry some good advice: “Much as we want a relationship with Egypt . . . I would urge caution, rather than alacrity, in terms of assistance. I’d rather be supporting Egypt in their democracy-building institutions than taking any actions that will be viewed . . . as condoning a crackdown.”