The Egyptian military coup led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, purportedly as a response to days of public protests in which at least 16 people were killed, is an ominous development. The Constitutional Court’s seniormost judge, Adly Mansour, has been sworn in as interim President, but the deposed, democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsy, is under house arrest. According to reports, the interim government is searching for other members of the Muslim Brotherhood — the parent body to Mr. Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party — apparently to arrest them. The coup is the latest in a series of political confrontations that have dogged Egypt since the widely acclaimed protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship in February 2011. Those seemed to herald a genuinely democratic future for Egypt. Mr. Morsy was fairly elected in June 2012, but since then major political reforms have failed in the face of the inability of established Egyptian institutions to accept public accountability. The economy has slid to the point where Egypt may not even have hard currency to buy oil for export earners such as the textile industry. In addition, the Constitutional Court itself suspended the elected Parliament in June 2012, and Mr. Morsy attempted to take sweeping new powers in November 2012 but staged a partial climbdown in the face of the resulting controversy.

The army says fresh elections will be held and that it will then resume its normal duties, and there was huge public cheering when a council comprising General al-Sisi, Constitution Party leader Mohamed ElBaradei, Al Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II announced President Morsy’s ouster. Yet the military had earlier given all political bodies an absurdly short 48 hours to resolve their differences, and all the signs point to another crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Mubarak subjected to vicious repression. While none can wish for that, the current standoff is bound to revive the power struggle between the military and the Brotherhood, which clearly has the support of Egypt’s socially conservative rural majority. Secondly, General al-Sisi’s mention of instability as a reason for the coup is a reminder both that the military was the country’s power elite for over 50 years — with a long record of corruption and other abuses of power — and that the ‘stability’ it imposed was tolerated by the West for suppressing claims by the Egyptian people for social justice, democracy and a just Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The military must hold the promised elections and quit politics, or all the gains of the Tahrir Square revolution will be tragically lost.

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