THE RELATIVE good news about Egypt is that the new Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi is loudly proclaiming its desire for a continued “strategic partnership” with the United States. During a visit to Washington this week, Essam El Haddad, a senior aide to Mr. Morsi, told us the new regime sees its relationship with the Obama administration as based on “shared values,” adding that it “has a great potential to develop a new hope within the region and even beyond the region.”
The bad news is that Egypt is dangerously polarized between Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and liberal and secular forces, which have taken to the streets repeatedly in the past two weeks. They are there to protest Mr. Morsi’s assumption of near-dictatorial power and his party’s subsequent rush to complete a new constitution. A referendum is set for Dec. 15.
Mr. Haddad protests that Mr. Morsi’s actions mean that Egypt will move more quickly to a democratic system of checks and balances than it would have, had he allowed judges appointed by former autocrat Hosni Mubarak to dissolve the constitutional assembly, as they appeared set to do. He argues that the new constitution will institutionalize freedoms and rights Egyptians were denied during more than five decades of military rule, including protections against torture, freedom of assembly and the right to form political parties and start publications without government permission.
In fact, the new constitution is a mixed bag. While it does not impose sharia law or other fundamentalist tenets on the country and contains the liberal provisions Mr. Haddad described, broadly written articles appear to give the government power to undermine individual rights. The Egyptian military is given virtual autonomy, with a defense minister appointed from within its ranks and a budget determined by a national security council rather than by parliament.
The deeper problem is that Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents. While his spokesmen say they recognize that some of the protesters are peaceful members of the movement that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, they claim that the crowds contain paid thugs and provocateurs. In all, it’s not yet clear whether the regime is moving toward a rough but workable democracy or a new autocracy.
All this places the Obama administration in a difficult position. The administration is understandably eager to embrace the alliance Mr. Haddad describes; partnership with Egypt has been a pillar of U.S. Middle East strategy for 40 years. President Obama worked closely with Mr. Morsi during last month’s crisis in Gaza, and the State Department’s public criticism of Mr. Morsi’s power grab has been muted. But the United States cannot return to a policy that ignores domestic repression in Egypt, especially when it is directed against secular and liberal movements.
Mr. Morsi was due to visit Washington on Dec. 17; fortunately, the two governments agreed to postpone the trip until after Mr. Obama’s second inauguration. That will provide more time to judge whether Mr. Morsi is leading his country toward democracy, and whether he will seek compromise with the opposition. If he does not, the hope-inspiring partnership Mr. Haddad spoke of cannot be possible.