So far, with military generals still in charge in Cairo until elections in a few months, it remains unclear if the current rulers understand a few key pillars of a free society.
One pillar is the responsibility of the state not to favor one religious or minority group over another. That lesson is essential in a region loaded with sectarian or ethnic faultlines, notably Syria.
In Egypt last weekend, a Muslim attack on Christians in a Cairo suburb left 13 dead and hundreds injured. The violence against Coptic Christians is not a good sign of the ability of Egypt’s security forces to protect minorities or their interests. The police and Army were too slow in their response to the violence, which resulted in the burning of two churches.
The incident also reveals a resurgence of Islamist forces trying to exclude the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Christian – the largest nonMuslim religious minority in any Arab nation – from a role in government and to possibly infuse sharia law into Egyptian law.
Last February, the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who ousted Hosni Mubarak clearly showed a desire for a pluralistic, tolerant society. During their 18-day uprising, both Christians and Muslims protected each other – often during their moments of prayer.
Egypt’s historic role as a model for other Arab states would be solidified if it ensured the protection of minorities in a civil and inclusive government. Such leadership might influence the outcomes of protests in the rest of the region.
The second pillar of any democracy is the right to civilian justice. That right is now on shaky ground in Egypt.
The secretive Army, as transitional rulers, has used military trials against thousands of civilians, depriving them of basic rights, while putting officials of the previous regime on trial in civilian courts.
This parallel system of justice is highly unfair, especially in the denial of adequate council in military trials. It furthers public distrust of the military as possibly seeking its own advantage in this critical transition. An independent judiciary needs to be honored now.
While the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces can be commended for arresting Mr. Mubarak – on both corruption charges and for the killing of more than 800 protesters – it cannot treat common citizens differently.
A third pillar for Egypt’s coming democracy is a free press. The military’s warning to Egyptian media on not covering such things as the arrest or alleged torture of protesters does not bode well for creating a free society.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, recently said “the success of the Arab Spring will be judged very heavily by what happens” in Egypt. Both the Egyptian people and Western democracies need to be vigilant in ensuring that “the January 25 revolution,” does not lose course.
The Army has shown it can side with the people. It just needs constant reminders as it slowly hands over power to civilian democratic rulers.