As heartening as Tunisia's successful election was for post-revolutionary democratic transition in the Arab world, the distressing signals from Egypt indicate it has veered off course from the freedom and democracy goals of Tahrir Square. The country's military rulers have become steadily more abusive, while finding excuse after excuse to delay handing over power to civilian authorities. The Obama administration, the military's principal patron, stands by the generals as it did President Hosni Mubarak, with nary a public peep about the dangerous direction in which they're taking the country.
The Egyptian public enjoyed a rather delicious honeymoon with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the immediate aftermath of the January-February uprising that led to Mubarak's resignation. This was the army that refused orders to fire on its people; the army greeted by hugs and adulation when it declared it would take over transitional authority to prepare for civilian elections and restore security. Egypt's media were willing to look the other way when the SCAF passed a law imposing broad new penalties for public strikes and demonstrations, and when soldiers arrested hundreds who continued to demonstrate with a host of grievances. Many Egyptians held their noses as the SCAF refused to cancel the hated Emergency Law, which authorizes indefinite detention without charge and trials without appeals, in the name of curtailing lawlessness and violence.
But it soon became clear that Egypt's military leaders were neither democratic nor revolutionary. Human rights activists watched in shock as the military escalated the use of military trials for civilians, including protesters, journalists and activists. There had been 3,000 by June, already exceeding the sum total of such military trials during 30 years of Mubarak's rule, and the number today stands at over 12,000.
The military that had established its own Facebook page turned to intimidating and prosecuting journalists and bloggers, and dictating what they may and may not say. In late October a court sentenced Ayman Mansour to three years in prison for posting a Facebook message deemed "insulting to Islam." A court sentenced another blogger, Maikel Nabil, to three years in prison for "insulting the military." Yosri Fouda, a prominent talk show host who seemed cautiously confident in the military when I talked with him in June, recently announced he was canceling his show due to interference from the military. But the ultimate wakeup call was what has been named the Maspero massacre. At a Coptic community demonstration in October about the burning of a church, military forces fired on, and military vehicles ran over, protesters and bystanders, killing 27.
The military has sought to justify its heavy-handed tactics with old reliable standbys: law and order, and "foreign interference," drawing on the public's near-hysteria about crime and chaos. In a recent Gallup poll, 38 percent of Egyptians who responded said they feared being the victims of assault and violence, and anecdotes abound about armed carjackings, spiraling robberies, neighborhoods taken over by thugs. But the same Gallup poll indicated that the reported crime rate has remained constant this year, post-revolution, with 11 percent saying they had been assaulted or robbed, way down from the high of 26 percent in 1998.
The continued election delays are an ominous signal that the gentlemen of the SCAF have little desire to return to their barracks. Presidential elections initially promised before the end of this year will now apparently take place in June 2013, an alarmingly protracted period of military rule, particularly given their worsening record. Some liberal parties that initially championed the SCAF's authority, even going so far as to propose letting the military retain authority to veto constitutional amendments as a safeguard against Islamist victories in the parliamentary vote, today look nervously at the prospect of a Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated parliament and prolonged military executive authority.
Despite these disturbing turns of events, the US has sent mixed messages, and its flow of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt remains uninterrupted. The Pentagon has had close ties to the SCAF leaders for decades, and Mubarak's ouster does not appear to have strained their relationship in the least. The presence of Pentagon officials at the SCAF's recent Washington road-show meetings was perceived by Egyptians as a public vote of confidence in their leadership. A person who attended the meetings said that the SCAF took pains to reassure the State Department and Congress that it could be trusted to maintain the peace with Israel and security at the border - while rather directly dismissing the prospects for the transition to democracy.
Whether the US continues to support Egypt's military leaders regardless of their record of abuses will be an important test of President Barack Obama's promise of a new era in the nation's Middle East politics. Obama has publicly called on the SCAF to lift the emergency law and end military trials; yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently echoed the military's excuse that the emergency law is needed to deal with "everyday criminals." And the administration continues to resist efforts by the Congress to condition aid on reform.
It is too soon to call Tahrir a failure, but not too soon to stop the dangerous return to authoritarian rule in Egypt.
Sarah Leah Whitson is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.