November 27, 2013

AFEW WEEKS ago, in his first visit to Egypt since the military removed President Mohamed Morsi, Secretary of State John F. Kerry urged the nation’s leaders to stay on track for a return to democracy. He said they should stick to their “road map,” a plan for a referendum on changes to the constitution and for parliamentary and presidential elections by next year. “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” the secretary declared.

There wasn’t much evidence of a democratic transition when Mr. Kerry said those words, and in recent days the road map has gotten still more tattered. A state of emergency imposed by the military-led government expired but is being replaced by other repressive measures. On Sunday, the interim president, Adly Mansour, issued a law that could sharply restrict public demonstrations such as those that have roiled the country in the past two years.

The new law effectively bans any public gathering of more than 10 people without government approval, requires those holding a protest to notify the government three days in advance and bans all demonstrations at places of worship. Many demonstrations and marches in the past two years have originated at Friday prayers at mosques. The law gives the authorities the right to prohibit any protest on extremely vague grounds of a public security threat and empowers the police to forcibly disperse protesters who do anything to “violate the peaceful nature of expressing opinions.” The new law is an ominous invitation to continue repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported Mr. Morsi, and others opposing the government.

In another setback for democracy, the 50-member committee writing amendments to the constitution approved an article allowing military trials of civilians in certain cases. The article would give the regime yet another bludgeon over any opposition, threatening to bring them into military courts.

On Tuesday, a group of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the new law and the constitutional article on military trials. Apparently acting under the new assembly law, police dispersed them with water cannons and made arrests. Among those taken in were Mona Seif, founder of a campaign against military trials for civilians. On Wednesday, authorities followed up by issuing arrest warrants for two of the most prominent secular liberal leaders of the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed Maher and Alaa Abdel Fattah.

All this adds up to a government in Egypt steering toward autocracy rather than democracy. Mr. Kerry said in Cairo that events were “moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for and concerned about.” In fact, they are not. As a State Department spokeswoman noted Monday, the new law on public assembly “does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt’s democratic transition forward.” The Obama administration has been eager to show support for Egypt’s leadership, but it is long past time to be honest about its behavior.