When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in January and ousted their thirty-year president, they thought that they were taking a decisive step to move the country away from the military-backed dictatorship they had endured for the last 60 years. The terrible violence last Sunday that claimed over 25 lives and injured hundreds more, with the vast majority of casualties coming from among the unarmed mainly Christian protesters, is the most visible sign to date that Egypt's transition away from military rule remains incomplete.
While reports of how the violence started are contradictory, it seems clear that the military police used excessive force against unarmed protesters. The events of October 9, now being referred to as Black Sunday, should be investigated promptly by a credible independent body, such as the judiciary. Those guilty of wrong doing should be held accountable. It is unhelpful for Egyptian leaders to try to evade responsibility for the violations that occurred by speaking about hidden hands and foreign interference, as Prime Minister Sharaf did.
This kind of chaotic violence is further indication of the dangerous political vacuum now existing in Egypt; it can only be filled by the election of a legitimate representative government. The Egyptian authorities must move forward expeditiously with plans to hold elections for a parliament and a president. Parliamentary elections are now scheduled to take place at the end of November, but the date for the presidential elections remains unclear, leaving power in the hands of the military indefinitely. Delaying the democratic transition in the name of stability is counterproductive and will only lead to more violent outbursts of this nature.
Egypt's interim government must do more to respond to the legitimate demands of the Coptic Christian minority so that their rights to equal treatment and protection will be upheld. Condoning or turning a blind eye to anti-Christian incitement and violence, presumably on the theory that a level of threat and insecurity builds support for strong government and therefore the perpetuation of military control, is extremely dangerous. It is deeply disturbing that during the protests Egyptian state television broadcast the erroneous news that "Christians were attacking the military," urging people to take to the streets to protect the military. How such inflammatory statements came to be broadcast should be part of the investigation and those responsible should be held to account.
The military appeared eager to use exemplary, decisive force against a group of protesters in the misguided belief that this might help to deter further disruptive protests. It is disturbing that primarily Christian protesters were the chosen targets, raising fears that some in the military leadership appear to believe that they will be insulated from public criticism to some degree if they direct their violence against weaker, more vulnerable sectors of society. Moreover, Egypt's military and security establishment has a record, dating back to the Mubarak period, of playing on sectarian tensions to make the case for their own indispensability as guardians of stability. This counterproductive tactic needs to stop.
U.S. policy makers will be sorely tested as Egypt travels its bumpy road towards democratic transition. The intentions of enemies of democracy in Egypt were clear enough when false news reports circulated claiming that Secretary Clinton was promising to send military force to protect Egyptian Christians. The agenda of those spreading such falsehoods is to try to portray U.S. support for democracy and human rights as a cynical exercise in neo-colonial power politics.
U.S. policy makers need to ignore such provocations and remain consistent and clear in their stance towards Egypt. The overriding U.S. strategic goal must be in securing the success of the democratic transition in Egypt -- a goal shared by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. The United States must avoid knee-jerk reactions to particular incidents, however disturbing they may be, and remain committed to supporting the transition to democratic governance within the next few months. Now is not the time to impose conditions on foreign assistance to Egypt, for example.
At the same time, the United States needs to take a clear public stand that further delays in the timeline for elections and the transition to civilian rule would be damaging to the good relations between the two countries. Staying in control, if not in power as the formal office holders, increasingly appears to be the long term goal of Egypt's military leadership. U.S. policy makers need to avoid giving Egypt's military junta what it wants by giving their blessing to democratic back sliding.
The U.S. government at all levels and through all branches should use the rich, close relationships with Egyptian leaders to communicate a constant message: that the quality of the U.S. relationship with Egypt will be determined by the progress Egypt makes towards democratic governance that protects and upholds the basic rights and freedoms of all of its people.