The same military that ushered Hosni Mubarak from power is now threatening Egypt's revolution just as it gets off the ground. The generals' power play in the past week is a serious setback for the country, and it will only serve to inflame their chief rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood and marginalize the populist and secular groups needed to play a moderating role in a democratic transition.
The ruling military council pounced even before the Muslim Brotherhood claimed victory in last weekend's runoff election for president. Fearing an Islamist victory, the council dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, seizing legislative power. And it moved quickly over the weekend to impose an interim Constitution, to remove from presidential control the military and defense ministries and to handpick an assembly to write Egypt's new national charter.
This is nothing short of a coup disguised as an orderly transition. It calls into question the outcome of a peaceful, inclusive presidential race. And by reserving for itself broad powers over politics, national security and the economy, the military has dashed hopes at the outset for laying a balance of power in Egypt that could win public confidence at home and abroad. That will undermine Egypt's standing and economy and still the ripples of the Arab Spring. The authorities added more uncertainty Wednesday by postponing today's scheduled announcement of the election results.
Mubarak's overthrow was the culmination of decades of pent-up public anger with autocratic rule. The military, which played a heroic role in removing him from power, should realize the desire for democratic change is irreversible. The Brotherhood blasted the military's move and is organizing a new round of street protests. It should be clear even to the generals that this crisis will not play out peacefully for long. The military will continue to lose face among the Egyptian people, and the Mubarak-era leftovers will have a more difficult time establishing their legitimacy.
The Obama administration can help by making clear that it expects Egypt to continue with the democratic process. That course is the only practical path away from renewed bloodshed, political paralysis and economic turmoil. Egyptians got a taste of what a popular mobilization could do, but that moment needs to be followed by a reconciliation of the varied forces that drove the regime from power. It can only be hoped that the generals' power grab was impulsive in nature. Otherwise the revolution has entered a dangerous phase.