Egypt has undergone a military coup, carefully choreographed and wrapped as a democratic act, but a coup d'etat nonetheless. How badly this ends will depend entirely on what the army and the Muslim Brotherhood do next.
It's true that this wasn't an ordinary military seizure of power. The generals won't, for example, be taking any formal political position; they acted on a wave of genuine popular anger at President Mohammed Morsi; and they set out a road map for new elections. They also lined up an impressive array of support across Egypt's religious divides.
The country's senior Islamic scholar appeared on television to support Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi's suspension of the constitution. So did the Coptic Christian pope and Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate opposition leader and former United Nations diplomat. In Cairo's central Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of anti-government protesters celebrated the announcement, even a spokesman for Egypt's second largest Islamist party, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, told the crowd that he supported the coup.
Yet now is hardly the moment to celebrate the dawn of a more diverse and secular future for Egypt. Since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, there have been 14 rounds of democratic votes, including two referendums. All of these were won by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, or in the case of the plebiscites, the causes they were espousing. That is democracy, and it has been traduced.
This is a fast-moving situation. It defies prediction. If we could wave a magic wand, however, we would hope for the following:
First, that the military find a way to bring the Muslim Brotherhood, and if possible Morsi, back into politics. Not only is the risk of violence and polarization of society otherwise too great, but sidelining the Brotherhood will feed a corrosive (and misguided) narrative among Islamists across the Middle East that democracy is a system that works for everyone — except them. It hasn't helped that the army has begun arresting Morsi's officials.
Second, that the transition period to new elections be short. So long as Egypt has no elected parliament and president, it will be under the control of the military and of the old Mubarak regime. The Constitutional Court, from which the military drew interim President Adly Mansour, is a bastion of the former establishment. The longer these people hold power, the harder they will be to remove.
Third, that the United States freeze the $1.3 billion in aid it pays to the Egyptian military each year until new elections are held. The United States will of course be pilloried regardless of what it says or does. No matter. It should work to keep the transition period short and do all it can to encourage a return to elected government.
The biggest test, though, will be for the Muslim Brotherhood itself. If it can restrain the justifiable anger of its supporters and remain in the political process, then Egypt has a chance for a stable future. With troops deployed in the streets of Cairo, where tens of thousands of Morsi supporters continue to protest, the alternatives are chilling.