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Egypt's Stability Delusion

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Egypt's Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi traveled to Saudi Arabia this week and on Wednesday assured the defense minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, that Egypt was enjoying "growing stability." It is difficult to understand what he was referring to.

Contrary to the prime minister's assurances, the terrible violence that occurred on of the third anniversary of the mass protests that brought down President Mubarak should sound the alarm that events in Egypt are in a downward spiral and could easily get out of control. Regular weekly protests are held around the country by supporters of deposed, elected President Mohamed Morsi and are met with repression, as unarmed protesters are fired on with live ammunition. Casualties since the removal of Morsi in July are well into the thousands.

The non-Islamist protesters on January 25 had a banner that sarcastically captured the mood: "Celebrate [the passage of the new Constitution] or be Killed."

On January 26, Islamist militants in Sinai used a surface to air missile to bring down an Egyptian military helicopter, killing five soldiers on board, and marking an escalation in the capabilities of militant groups in the peninsula, who have been long-engaged in an insurgency against the Cairo government. Attacks on police and military targets are on the rise throughout the country.

The military-backed government has created a climate of extreme intolerance against critics of its policies. Peaceful dissidents are subjected to smear campaigns in the official media, and vigilante mob violence against perceived government critics is on the rise in a poisonous atmosphere of conspiracy and fear-mongering.

The constitutional referendum last month only served to call attention to the polarization gripping society. Ninety-eight percent of the voters may have supported the new constitution, but 62% of the electorate did not vote.

Much of the support for the military-backed rule in Egypt, and the imminent coronation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president, surely stems from the public's weariness with the instability and uncertainty of the past three years. Most people will understandably support any option that promises to restore order and arrest the all too apparent decline in the quality of life of virtually all Egyptians.

This mounting unrest and instability in Egypt threaten vital U.S. national interests. The Egyptian economy will not recover until there is a greater degree of political stability and a restoration of social peace. The path of repression taken by the military-backed interim government will only exacerbate divisions and lead to more violence.

In order to release foreign assistance payments to Egypt, the Obama Administration is required to certify that the Egyptian government is "taking steps to support a democratic transition in Egypt." There is no way in current circumstances - with basic freedoms of assembly and expression being summarily denied, with hundreds of unarmed protesters shot down in the street, and with thousands of government critics jailed on flimsy charges, denied their basic rights to challenge their detention and with no expectation of receiving fair trials - that the administration can honestly make such a certification.

If it does, not only will it be condemning Egypt to years of repression and conflict, it will also be undermining the credibility of the United States as a promoter of human rights anywhere in the world.

The U.S. government's leverage is much greater than that provided by the military assistance alone. The Egyptian government is desperate for international acceptance of its actions, and the United States has the biggest say on whether to provide or withhold such a blessing.

Without this support there will be no recovery in the devastated Egyptian tourist industry, no return to pre-2011 levels of foreign direct investment, and no sustained economic support from multilateral lending institutions and the international community. In this way, the U.S. government is the gatekeeper to tens of billions of dollars of much-needed support for the Egyptian economy, which amounts to real leverage.

The Obama administration talks about its aspirations for Egypt's future, but is strangely reticent in speaking out clearly on the steps required from Egypt's leaders to bring this about. These include promoting respect for basic rights and freedoms, ending the crackdown on government critics and embarking on a political path inclusive of all non-violent political currents, upholding the rule of law, ending the routine use of live ammunition against protesters, and ending the impunity and lack of accountability under which the military currently rules.

Instead of vague musings about restoring democracy, or transition, which only sow confusion and can do harm, the administration needs to recognize the crisis unfolding in Egypt. It should not give succor to the dangerous myth that repression will restore stability to Egypt.