Editorial Board

Egypt’s Generals Must Stand for Democracy or Risk Toppling: View

Cracking the heads of peaceful demonstrators in a square that has come to signify legitimate protest in the Arab world seems a clear indication that the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces is not much better than the government it replaced. In three days of clashes centered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, at least 22 people have died.

The authoritarian behavior of the council has realigned politics in Egypt. It has put large numbers of Islamist forces in the streets alongside secularists against now-united, formerly rivalrous military and police forces. The shift has complicated Egypt’s journey toward democratic rule as there are now fewer checks and balances on each side.

So where to from here?

In a speech this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of future unrest if “the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials.” The U.S. and other Western powers should make a strong case to the generals that their best interest lies in avoiding that scenario. The unrest next time will be aimed, after all, at them.

The first thing Egypt needs is successful elections. The first round of voting for a new parliament is supposed to take place Monday. Several political parties have suspended campaigning to protest the government’s crackdown, and there have been suggestions of postponing the vote. A delay, presumably on the grounds of instability, would feed the generals’ arguments for monopolizing power. And it could well ignite genuine chaos.

To be sure, the election system designed by the supreme council is flawed. It’s ridiculously complicated. In a process that ends March 11, 2012, there will be three rounds of voting for each of the two houses of parliament, plus possible runoff elections. Some members will be chosen by proportional representation, others directly. There are seats reserved for “workers and farmers.” Some seats are appointed.

But this is the system Egyptians have for now. To make it work, the military council should drop its prideful refusal to allow only a few international experts to “witness” (not “observe”) the balloting and instead invite in hundreds, as the Tunisians did for their elections last month. And it should make sure election-day security is tight so that voters are safe and unintimidated.

Looking further ahead, the generals should stop dithering about the date for a presidential election, and thus a deadline for the end of their rule. Instead of putting off the vote until 2013, which is the latest plan, the council should firmly commit to the original timeframe of next April. The government should invest in educating the electorate about the parliamentary ballot process, no small task in a country with 34 percent illiteracy.

We are not naive enough to think the generals will listen to us. But they should listen to the markets: The best chance to turn around Egypt’s struggling economy -- the benchmark stock index is down 45 percent this year -- is to give outside investors and trade partners confidence in its path to democracy. The council will also pay attention to unambiguous messages from the U.S., which provides Egypt with more than $1.5 billion each year in military and economic aid.

The Egyptian people need reasons to believe in their military again. Only the generals can provide them.