With tanks deployed in the streets of Cairo, following clashes that have left at least half a dozen people dead, it is obvious that the political turmoil which forced Hosni Mubarak out of office has returned. Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s successor, has no one to blame but himself for these street clashes. They are a direct response to what is widely seen as his extra-constitutional grab for power and his tendency to demonize his opponents in inflammatory language by claiming they are former regime stooges.
Morsi’s process of consolidating authority is set to continue in just nine days’ time if the referendum he has scheduled on a hastily cobbled together new constitution is still held. The constitution, based on the existing one that justified decades of dictatorial rule, is full of amorphous language that secularists and Coptic Christians fear could inaugurate a new tyranny by the Muslim Brotherhood. It certainly does nothing to change the military’s unaccountable position, outside of political control—something that can be good or bad depending on whether the military sees its role as shepherding in secular democracy (as in Turkey) or serving as enforcers for the Islamists in power (as in Iran).
The encouraging news of recent days is that the political opposition is not going quietly—it is protesting not only in the streets but with some newspapers suspending publication temporarily, judges speaking out, and even some of Morsi’s own aides resigning in protest. It is far from clear where these clashes are heading: are we seeing another Egyptian revolution or (more likely) protests that will be put down?
Whatever the case, the U.S. position is clear–or ought to be: We must stand with the democrats in Egypt by insisting on checks and balances in the political system and more moderate rule from Morsi. So far President Obama has been extremely cautious in making his views clear. This is not necessarily wrong—speaking out in public can make it harder to apply private pressure to Morsi. But whatever tactics he chooses to employ, Obama cannot simply sit by and allow the Egyptian revolution to be undermined. With our billions of dollars of military and economic aid to Egypt, the U.S. has an important say in what happens. Doing nothing isn’t an option—that signals support for the status quo. Obama must use what leverage he has to press Morsi to create a more liberal government, not a new dictatorship.