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Tue 22 Nov 2011 03:24 PM

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Egypt’s army must back democracy or risk toppling

Cairo’s rulers show shades of old regime as death toll rises in fresh clashes

Egypt’s army must back democracy or risk toppling
Egyptian activists called for a huge turnout in protests on Tuesday to put an end to rule by the military (AFP/Getty Images)

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, more than 30 people have died.

The authoritarian behaviour 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, US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton warned of future unrest if “the most powerful political force in Egypt
remains a roomful of unelected officials.” The US 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 US, which provides Egypt with more than $1.5bn each year in military and
economic aid.

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

(This is a Bloomberg
Views piece.)

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