When Egypt's military leaders in July removed the nation's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the country's allies may have deployed self-delusion to mask reality. The generals said they had to force Morsi out to save democracy. They said their assertion of authority would be brief and elections would come soon. The U.S. and other nations wagged fingers, but largely tempered their reactions. The generals seemed trustworthy.
The brutal storming this week of peaceful protest encampments ends the brief era of world delusion over Egypt and its generals. The violence also may end the brief era of democracy in Egypt. The military has used tear gas, heavy armor and rooftop snipers to disperse peaceful Muslim Brotherhood protesters seeking the release of Morsi, who has been in government custody since he was pushed from power. Hundreds of people have been killed.
Egypt, it seems, faces one of two untenable futures: a return to military dictatorship or a civil war. It's hard to see how elections again could be held. Much of Egypt's population, supporters of Morsi, would treat them as nothing but a sham and an insult.
Egypt's military-backed leadership has declared a state of emergency, the tactic long favored by President Hosni Mubarak as justification to jail thousands of political dissidents.
Still, Egyptians have tasted democracy. They've felt the power of protest, the swelling crowds that in a matter of a few astonishing weeks, forced Mubarak from power. There was talk then of how Egyptians had toppled their own Berlin Wall. The military has crushed that progress, that sense of self-empowerment.
All of this portends a long, bloody struggle in Egypt, the center of the Arab world. That's big trouble for a part of the globe that's seeing trouble at nearly every turn.
In Iraq, a spate of car bombings and shootings has raised fears that the nation could become engulfed again in a sectarian Sunni-Shiite bloodbath.
In Syria, civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives. President Bashar Assad clings to power, wielding chemical weapons against his own people. The country is in ruins, with jihadists and terrorists streaming in, delighting Iran's Damascus-friendly despots and Russia's meddlers.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban are talking peace but pursuing war, stepping up attacks on Afghan security forces as the U.S. prepares to exit.
In Yemen, the al-Qaida affiliate has eclipsed its leaders in Pakistan as the main threat to American interests.
Pakistan, often called "the most dangerous place on Earth," remains dangerously unstable, a cauldron of religious extremism and jihadist sympathies.
As the U.S. scrambled for a response to Egypt's bloodshed, President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he had canceled a joint military exercise with the Egyptians. The United States could threaten to pull $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, but is reluctant to completely rupture relations with an important ally next to Israel. At any rate, announcing an end to the aid right now would be largely symbolic -- Egypt has cashed this year's check. The U.S. isn't scheduled to send more assistance until 2014.
Morsi alienated millions of people by monopolizing power and moving Egypt toward Islamist government. He wouldn't compromise. He couldn't govern. But the best option for Egypt was to keep holding elections and remove him.
Instead, the military lost patience, lost confidence in its citizenry, and may lose Egypt.
-- Chicago Tribune