October 10, 2011

THE ATTACK BY THE Egyptian army, as well as civilian thugs, on Christians who were seeking to peacefully protest Sunday in the center of Cairo produced tragic and reprehensible results, including 26 deaths and more than 500 people injured. It also showed everything that is wrong with a military regime whose mismanagement of the country — and prolongation of its time in office — threatens to destroy Egypt’s chances for democracy.

Several thousand members of the Coptic sect, which makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, were marching to protest the failure by the military government to prevent attacks on their churches. According to independent accounts, they were set upon first by civilians wielding sticks and stones and then by military vehicles, whose crews deliberately drove over unarmed protesters and opened fire with machine guns.

The response to this violence by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its appointed civilian prime minister was shameful. On state television, calls were issued for citizens to take to the streets to defend the army — as if it, and not the Copts, was under attack. Meanwhile, security forces intervened in the studios of independent broadcasters, including U.S.-financed al Hurrah, to prevent them from reporting. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf implausibly blamed the violence on a foreign conspiracy while saying it had “taken us back several steps.” Egyptians took his remarks as a threat to postpone — once again — promised elections.

There’s little doubt that the transition to democracy is in danger. But the fault lies not with protesting Copts, Islamic fundamentalists or others who have been organizing and agitating for change in Cairo, but with the military regime. The 24 senior officers on the ruling council have repeatedly said that they wish to hand over power to civilians as soon as possible. But they keep extending their time: Having at first promised to carry out a transition by last month, they now are talking about a timetable that would keep them in office for at least a year, and maybe much longer.

While they linger, the generals misrule. They have subjected thousands of civilians to unfair military trials, intimidated the media and spooked tourists and foreign investors with erratic economic decisions, including the rejection of much-needed foreign loans. They issue laws and even constitutional amendments, then abruptly change them. They have failed to protect Christian churches and the Israeli embassy, which was sacked by a mob of thugs as police stood by. They then cite such outbreaks of violence as justification for still more repression — including the extension of the previous regime’s autocratic emergency law.

The scenes of chaos in Cairo may cause some to conclude that democracy should be delayed while order is restored. In fact, just the opposite course is needed: The generals should be pressed to accelerate the election of a civilian president to whom power can be handed over. A White House statement got it right: “These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy.” The United States should now use its leverage with the Egyptian military to drive home that message.