November 4, 2013

IN CAIRO on Monday, Mohamed Morsi, the elected Egyptian president deposed in a military coup in July, was brought to a court to face charges of incitement to murder. Held incommunicado for the past four months, he has been unable to consult with lawyers or review the evidence against him. An estimated 2,000 other high- and mid-ranking leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are under arrest, as well as some 6,000 other members. Hundreds are being tried in secret and without due process in military courts.

With the party that won five elections in the past two years thus repressed, a 50-member assembly handpicked by the military is rushing to complete a new constitution. According to widespread reports, it will exempt the armed forces and their budget from civilian oversight and authorize continued military trials of civilians. The state-controlled media are promoting a cult of personality around the army’s leader, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and campaigning for him to become president. Meanwhile, Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart-like political satirist renowned for his opposition to Mr. Morsi, is back off the air and facing half a dozen criminal complaints because of his gentle lampooning of the Sissi cult in his one and only broadcast since the coup.

Not surprisingly, a Freedom House report released Monday concludes that “there has been virtually no substantive progress toward democracy . . . since the July 3 coup,” despite the military regime’s supposed “road map.” But that’s not how Secretary of State John F. Kerry sees it. “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” he pronounced during a quick trip to Cairo on Sunday. A liberal constitution and elections? “All of that is, in fact, moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for.”

What is it that Mr. Kerry doesn’t perceive? To judge that Egypt is headed toward democracy is to ignore the fact that its last elected leader and thousands of his supporters are now political prisoners facing, at best, blatantly unfair trials. It is to overlook the reality that opposition media have been shut down and that those that remain are more tightly controlled by the regime than they have been in decades. It skips over the rigging of the constitution by the military and that leading secular liberal politicians, such as former presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, have been driven out of the country.

To be fair, Mr. Kerry is only following the policy set by President Obama, who in September declared that his administration would henceforth defend only a narrow set of “core interests” in the Middle East. The flow of oil is on the list; the defense of democracy is not. The administration felt compelled, following a series of massacres of civilian protesters by Egyptian security forces, to suspend the delivery of several U.S. weapons systems, including F-16s. As Mr. Kerry helpfully explained in Cairo, that is because U.S. law mandates it: The administration is reluctantly and partially adhering to legislation requiring a cutoff of military aid following a coup, while seeking a congressional waiver.

Mr. Kerry made clear that his aim is to restore full ties to the regime as quickly as possible. Sounding apologetic, he said he “did not spend a lot of time” discussing the “very small” aid issue; his aides said he did not bring up the Morsi trial at all. The administration agreed to an Egyptian proposal to establish a “strategic partnership” even before knowing the outcome of the constitutional drafting or the promised elections. Mr. Kerry said he had “no doubt about our ability . . . to restore the full measure of the relationship that existed previously.”

The message seems clear enough: The Obama administration will accept and do business with the new autocracy that Gen. Sissi is constructing. If so, why not be honest about it? Mr. Kerry’s embrace of the regime’s empty promises of democracy only makes him appear foolish — or, perhaps, as cynical as the generals.

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