The security situation in Egypt spiraled into a crisis Wednesday after the generals who ousted that country's first freely elected president killed scores of protesters whose crime was demanding a return to democracy. The killings end any pretense that the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi was anything but a coup, that the military has any intention of yielding power unilaterally and that any path to reconciliation will be quick, easy or bloodless. President Barack Obama refused to denounce the coup when it mattered, and now he has limited leverage in shaping a better path ahead.
Riot police backed by snipers, armored vehicles, helicopters and bulldozers swept through two encampments of pro-Morsi supporters, unleashing fierce street battles in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Nationwide, more than 270 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. At least two journalists were killed in the violence, which sparked condemnation by the United States, Turkey, Europe, the United Nations and others. The military-installed interim government declared a state of emergency, ordered a nighttime curfew in major cities and rounded up Morsi supporters. The crackdown was as senseless as it was brutal, and the protest resignation by Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, reflects how the government alienated secular professionals who are key to keeping Egypt from sliding into the abyss.
The immediate task for the government is to refrain from further violence, and for the opposition, which is building by the day, to continue to seek a peaceful path to democracy. The military's obsession with leveling Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as a political force and its makeshift approach to governing, together with the scale of Wednesday's violence, may make this farfetched. But all sides have a clear interest in containing the crisis, preserving regional stability and moving forward on the 2011 revolution that removed from power autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration needs to move beyond condemning the violence and call on the interim government to demonstrate its commitment to a peaceful way forward. That must include an end to Morsi's detention and the harassment of the Brotherhood, a timetable for returning a civilian government, and real protections that ensure full and open participation in the drafting of a new constitution. Otherwise the violence will only continue, driving all sides to the extremes. Obama doesn't have the strongest voice in this crisis, but he should use what he has while he has it.