Egyptian army tanks are rumbling through the streets of Cairo in an ominous show of force that leaves little doubt that the country's fledgling experiment in democracy has been seriously disrupted. The whereabouts of President Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected leader, are unknown, and the generals directing what the president's advisors have condemned as a "military coup" have yet to fully explain their intentions. The political situation is still very much in flux.
But with the armed forces apparently once again calling the shots, one thing is clear: Egyptians' hopes for a pluralistic democracy that represents all the country's political and religious factions and protects the rights of minorities have been put on hold, at least for moment. Instead, both supporters and opponents of President Morsi, who remain bitterly divided over Egypt's future and whose confrontation in the current overheated atmosphere could easily erupt into violence, must now confront the challenge of finding a way to work together to restore their country to civilian rule.
President Morsi, who took office last year with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, has been engaged in a long-running feud with liberal and secular opponents who charge him with mismanaging the economy and abusing his powers by appointing religious extremists to important government posts and forcing through a constitution aimed at imposing Islamic law. On Monday, those tensions overflowed into violent protests that brought millions of Egyptians into the streets to demand his resignation.
The size of the demonstrations dwarfed in scale even the massive gatherings in Cairo and other cities two years ago that ended former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's four decades of iron-fisted rule. After crowds ransacked and burned Brotherhood offices across the country, bringing the economy and the political process to a standstill, Egypt's top general, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued an ultimatum to the president warning him to either accommodate the protesters' demand for a more inclusive government or resign within 48 hours.
When the deadline passed today at around 11 a.m. Eastern time with Mr. Morsi still defiant, Egyptian army tanks appeared on the streets, and a few hours later General al-Sisi announced on state TV that Mr. Morsi had been removed from office. The speed with which events unfolded was breathtaking, even by the standards of the popular uprisings that emerged from the Arab Spring. It took Egyptians 18 days to topple Mr. Mubarak from power; Mr. Morsi, by contrast, was forced from office in less than a week.
What happens next will be crucial for Egypt's democracy. General al-Sisi said the military has drawn up a road map for the future that includes dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution, the appointment of an interim government that includes representatives of all the country's political factions — including the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies — and early elections for a new parliament and president. What that road map lacked, however, was a timetable spelling out exactly when all these changes are supposed to happen.
The greatest immediate danger is that the enormous crowds on both sides gathered in the capital could face off in a violent confrontation. Emotions are running high, and even a minor incident could spark bloody civil unrest, especially if the Brotherhood and its allies choose to violently protest Mr. Morsi's ouster. It's in the military's interest to do everything possible to prevent that from happening if the generals' claim to wanting a quick path back to civilian rule is true.
The U.S. needs to hold the generals to their pledge, and the massive aid it confers on Egypt's military gives it the leverage to do so. Egypt's revolution has stumbled badly, but the transition from dictatorship to democracy is rarely easy or without reverses. As we celebrate the birth of the United States, it is worth remembering that our first government failed, too, if less quickly or violently. Egypt's friends can only hope the reentry of the army into the country's political process is a temporary course correction that ultimately will put the country on a path to a more stable political order in which democratic institutions and values accepted as the norm.