Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Egyptians are scheduled to hear who their first freely elected leader is Thursday, and he’s expected to be the anti-establishment candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood. How much power the new president will have is another question altogether.

Egypt’s transitional military rulers, in charge since the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was on life support after a stroke Tuesday, have slowed the march of democracy the last 16 months. Last week, they went further to reverse progress. The generals dismissed parliament when the high court, staffed by judges from the deposed regime, ruled that elections for a third of the seats had been flawed. The generals, who had already reimposed martial law, then assigned legislative powers and control over the budget to themselves and appointed a 100-member assembly to write a new constitution that would determine the new president’s powers. This assembly, presumably, is designed to replace the one already named by parliament.

In other words, the generals effected a coup d’etat. They felt empowered to take these actions because they have guns. Yet their opponents possess something that can be just as potent: electoral legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood, to which the expected presidential winner Mohamed Mursi and a plurality (47 percent) of parliamentary members belong, rejects the idea that the military council has the authority to dismiss parliament and assume its powers.

That’s surely right and is why U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was careful to say, in response to the generals’ announcement, that “if” there is a need for new parliamentary elections, the U.S. hopes they will happen swiftly. In his conversation with Egypt’s interim leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wasn’t so prudent. According to the official account of the conversation, Panetta spoke of the need to conduct new elections as soon as possible, without any qualification.

Leaving the door open in this way treats an illegitimate decree as a fait accompli. It also suggests that the U.S., like the military council, is receptive to new elections because the last time, Islamists did so well. If that was Panetta’s intent, then it’s an impulse that he and the U.S. must get over. Democracy is going to bring Islamists to power in the Arab world for now. The only way to stop that from happening in the short-term is through repression, which breeds support for Islamists. This, certainly, is the lesson of the Arab Spring.

The U.S. has a deep store of skepticism to overcome concerning its motives in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt. The government can leave no room for ambiguity: it supports democracy, and not just when it likes the result. If the situation continues to unravel, then the prudent next step is for the U.S. to consider suspending the $1.3 billion in annual aid that it gives to Egypt’s military.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders say they intend to convene parliament, despite the generals’ order that it should be dissolved. Soldiers have been guarding the doors of the chamber, and the council has threatened to prosecute anyone who enters. The generals, however, have backed down before in the face of popular pressure and international scorn. That’s one good thing about trying to rule by decree -- you can always issue a contradictory one.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on a capital gains-corporate income tax deal; Margaret Carlson on Washington’s other dysfunctional government; Clive Crook on why the European Central Bank must act; Noah Feldman on whether Egypt will be the next Algeria; Peter Orszag on mandatory voting in the U.S.; Carl Pope on the rise of renewable energy in emerging markets.

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