What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals?

The forces who drove the country’s revolution are the only ones who can save it

So far, nothing — not even a civilian death toll approaching 1,000 — has convinced Egypt’s liberal secularists of the error of their ways in supporting the military takeover on July 3. Watching the release of former President Hosni Mubarak, the dictator they risked their lives to remove two years ago, might help change their minds.

By throwing in their lot with the military, Egypt’s liberals took at least two huge gambles: first, that the generals, after 18 bruising months in power from Mubarak’s downfall to Mohamed Mursi’s election, would have no appetite to rule; second, that in removing Mursi, the military would give Egypt’s Arab Spring a second chance.

These bets have gone horribly wrong. The military’s promises to restore democracy should be afforded the same credibility as its claims that it showed restraint in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.

The U.S. and Europe have little leverage to change the behavior of Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi and his fellow generals. Egypt’s allies in the Persian Gulf have said they will replace any aid Europe or the U.S. withdraws. That makes the role of Egypt’s liberals and media in changing the behavior of the military even more crucial. Popular support provided the generals with essential cover for the coup, and it remains extraordinarily valuable to them.

Liberals should start setting limits. More of them should follow the example of former nuclear negotiator Mohamed Elbaradei, who protested the bloodbath by resigning as the country’s interim vice president. Then they can start making more concrete and constructive demands: insisting that the military not extend emergency rule beyond a month, end its campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood by force, and hold early elections. In all this, they should be able to count on support from the U.S. and Europe.

Democracy may be beyond reach in Egypt for now. An end to the bloodshed need not be. It’s on this goal that Egypt’s liberals should focus — because the rights and freedoms they cherish and deserve cannot take root amid a brutal military crackdown.

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