Crackdown on Egypt protests: What's really at stake

The Egyptian military's order to end the Muslim Brotherhood protests is the latest slide toward violence and chaos. Egypt must right itself by balancing order and freedom.

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi march from Al-Fath Mosque to the defense ministry in Cairo July 30.

Like an individual, a country functions best if it finds the right balance between freedom and order, or the liberty to act and security from harm. With its unfinished democratic revolution, Egypt has lurched between those two demands for months, especially in the four weeks since the Army ousted an elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

On Wednesday, a military-sponsored interim regime ordered an end to the sit-ins in Cairo by tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who want Mr. Morsi reinstated. The prospects for violence are high after a similar crackdown on the Brotherhood’s protesters last week in which more than 80 people were killed.

Egypt’s descent into violence is only a symptom of a larger cascade toward chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The burst of freedom felt by many Egyptians back then has not been matched by a new ordering of society under a constitutional and civilian-guided democracy. The pendulum has swung between those two demands because the main players – the military, Islamists, and democracy activists – have each failed in its own way to provide the balance between freedom and security that Egyptian society seeks.

On July 3, the world was witness to the odd spectacle of democracy activists inviting the historically antidemocratic military to oust an elected Islamist whose supporters prefer a theocracy. That tangle of competing interests is best simplified by seeing events in Egypt through the perspective of a country still sorting out its freedom/order balance.

A stable society can find that balance by creating a consensus on the principles that will reduce the clashes between individual rights and the need for social discipline based on rule of law. A constitutional democracy is the best way to do that. But getting there has been as difficult for Egypt as it is for almost any new democracy.

In the past year, Egyptians have seen crime and inflation rise, thousands of workers go on strike, basic services deteriorate, and a chaotic political scene produce widespread dysfunction in governance. The public then cried out for order from the one institution that is seen as the most efficient, trustworthy, and predictable – the military – even if that meant putting aside newly won freedoms for now.

Egypt’s Army is somewhat unique in the world. It is the largest military in the Arab world and in Africa. It has fought five wars. Four of its officers ruled the country from 1952 to 2011. And it runs basic commercial enterprises, such as a giant bread factory and a water bottling business, that account for at least 8 percent of the economy.

Its leaders, such as chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, claim they do not want to rule. But that claim is belied by the fact that they refuse to let a civilian be defense minister. After Mr. Mubarak’s fall, the Army stayed in power far too long – 16 months. Now it controls an interim government of civilians once again. And it has reinstated the much disliked police units that track political and religious groups.

The pendulum toward order has swung too far, especially if police resort to extreme violence against the Brotherhood protesters. The sooner that Egyptians can rally themselves behind a new rights-ensuring constitution, the faster the country will be on track to find the balance a democracy needs. Any society requires a firm footing in both self-governance and order.

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