Mercifully, the rulers of Egypt have stepped back, if only temporarily, from the brink of long-term political deadlock. They have decided not to break up (as yet) two sit-in demonstrations in Cairo by supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, and another in the nearby city of Giza.
Mr. Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, overreached while he was in power, and did not build a broad coalition; in particular, he failed to include a sufficient number of liberals and secularists in the process of drafting a new constitution. The result would likely have been a regime heavily dominated by Islamists – hence, not a democracy.
Nonetheless, Mr. Morsi had been legitimately elected, by a narrow but clear margin – indeed the first leader of Egypt ever to have been democratically elected. A forcible dispersal of the demonstrators could be taken as a signal that half the country is being excluded from political life.
The police of Egypt, after many years of authoritarian government, have little or no experience of how to deal with large crowds of peaceable protesters. If they try to clear the sites of the demonstrations, they will very likely be heavy-handed.
The secularism of many Egyptians at elite levels can be misleading. According to the Pew Center’s large survey of attitudes toward religion and politics in Muslim-majority countries, published this year, 74 per cent of Egyptians favour sharia as the official law of the land.
Consequently, the Egyptian Armed Forces and their liberal allies would be unwise to try to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties from expressing their views in public places. To do so would be to invite a protracted political stalemate and more years of government without the consent of the governed.