The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi, center, speaks… (Ahmed Gomaa / Associated…)
From the moment it was announced that Egypt's authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, was stepping down, experts in that country and abroad warned that the Egyptian military wouldn't be content with a limited and transitional role.
That prophecy has come to pass, posing a challenge not only for democrats in Egypt and for its newly elected president but for its ally and benefactor, the United States. The Obama administration, which earlier this year waived congressional restrictions in order to keep sending military aid to Egypt, should reconsider that decision if the armed forces continue to thwart democracy.
On Sunday, 20 minutes after the end of voting in a runoff presidential election in which Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood apparently finished first, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a constitutional decree cementing its authority in both the near and long term. The order gives the military the authority to veto a presidential declaration of war, control over the national budget and immunity from presidential oversight, among other broad new powers. It follows last week's dissolution of the Islamist-dominated parliament pursuant to a decision by a panel of Mubarak-appointed judges.
Taken together, these actions undermine the assertions by the military — repeated at a news conference on Monday — that it does not seek political power. And worse may be in store. If a court disqualifies members of a constitutional convention chosen by the now-dismissed parliament, the military will name a new group of its own to write a permanent national charter. And if that document is not to the military's liking, it will be able to challenge it as inconsistent with "the revolution's goals and its main principles" or "any principle agreed upon in all of Egypt's former constitutions."
With its latest decree, the armed forces have betrayed the Egyptians of all political and religious opinions who thronged Tahrir Square a year and a half ago to demand democracy. That they may be motivated in part by policy preferences agreeable to the United States — such as support for a peace treaty with Israel or a distaste for Islamist-run government — is no excuse.
The Egyptian military's self-aggrandizement has already provoked calls in Congress for a suspension of military aid, which totals $1.3 billion a year, more than to almost any other country. On Monday, a State Department spokesperson alluded to that option when she warned that decisions taken by the military "are naturally going to have an impact on the nature of our engagement with the government and with the [military council] moving forward." She reminded the armed services that they "made a commitment to allow a transfer of democratic power, and we want to see them meet those commitments." We hope that message is being conveyed to Egypt's generals in private in much stronger terms.