The most important measure of Egypt’s Islamist government will not be how it manages the economy or even whether it maintains friendly relations with the United States and Israel; it will be whether it preserves the democratic norms that allowed its own rise to power. If Egyptians are able to freely criticize the government’s performance and can eventually vote it out of office if they are dissatisfied, the inevitable mistakes and occasional abuses of President Mohammed Morsi will be correctable.

Morsi and his Freedom and Justice party, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, insist that they are committed to the democratic system. They say that they will protect press freedom and allow all opposition parties to operate freely. After only a few months in office, however, there are disturbing signs that they may not stick to those promises.

Foremost among them is the increasing pressure being brought to bear on critical journalists. In recent months, at least half a dozen prominent editors, writers and cartoonists have been the targets of criminal investigations, many of them launched by a prosecutor appointed by Morsi following complaints from the president’s office. The charges range from reporting false news to blasphemy; a cartoonist for the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper was accused of the latter after she published a cartoon depicting Adam and Eve.

One of Egypt’s most popular television personalities, Bassem Yousef, became the target of a criminal investigation last month after he displayed a pillow with Morsi’s image on it. Yousef, who models himself after American comedian Jon Stewart, was accused of denigrating the head of state.

Morsi’s office protests that it is not responsible for these investigations; it points out that the charges against Yousef, as well as some other journalists, were initiated by private lawyers, who are allowed to lodge complaints with prosecutors. But several of the cases originated with complaints from the president’s office. And the government has not hesitated to impose its agenda on state-run media, installing its own editors and yanking unsympathetic news hosts off the air.

It has also tolerated — at least — a climate of intimidation. The offices of several independent television channels were besieged for weeks by supporters of a popular cleric. During demonstrations against Morsi’s government, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets and were accused of targeting journalists; one was killed by a rubber bullet.

While calling for preservation of democratic freedoms in Egypt, the Obama administration has been slow to take note of or respond to the attacks on journalists. Officials say they are feeling their way with Morsi’s government, trying to preserve cooperation on matters such as counterterrorism. Yet the United States retains considerable leverage over Egypt, including its influence over a pending International Monetary Fund loan the government badly needs. That sway should be aimed at preserving space for free media and a democratic opposition — which, in Cairo, is not just a liberal good but a vital U.S. interest.

The Washington Post (Jan. 14)