In Egypt, there is no longer any place for political metaphors. Showdown, battlefield, standoff, bloody struggle – those terms were all rendered starkly literal on Monday morning. Shortly after dawn, at least 42 supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi were killed and more than 300 hospitalized with gunshot wounds when the Egyptian army – which, after last week's "popular coup," is the country's sole governing authority – opened fire with live ammunition on what was either a sit-in demonstration or, by the army's account, an attempt to storm a barracks.
The question now is whether Egypt has become utterly ungovernable. Moments after Monday morning's massacre, the ultra-conservative, salafist Nour party, which had been the one religious party to take part in last week's "popular coup" against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi, announced that it was withdrawing its support from the transitional government and the forthcoming elections. Given that Nour is probably Egypt's second largest political force (after the Brotherhood), this is a serious blow: From now on, politics will be a showdown between secularists and Islamists, the former on the inside with the support of the army and the latter on the outside and, almost certainly, with the larger public behind it.
The massacre's repercussions were immediate, and likely lasting: The Muslim Brotherhood called for a stepping-up of protests and a concerted effort to unseat the military government, so further acts of mass violence are almost certain. One prominent politician, Strong Egypt Party leader Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, declared that Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour should step down immediately and an interim government should be formed.
But the nature of that interim government – and of any future Egyptian government – has become increasingly unclear now that a political stalemate has turned into a military coup (however popular) followed by an outright massacre.
As it stood, this weekend had already shown how difficult it will be to find any kind of leader to unite Egyptians, either during this interim period or in the wake of an eventual election.
Until Sunday night, it seemed likely that the interim Prime Minister would be Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who became a favourite of protesters and foreigners during Egypt's 2011 revolution. To the non-Islamist parties and their supporters, Mr. ElBaradei is considered a sage and a uniter, a figure above the squabbles of everyday politics – in good part because he failed, or did not try, to establish the post-revolution political leadership position many had expected
But over the weekend, that consensus collided with the other side of Egyptian political life when the Nour party vetoed Mr. ElBaradei's prime ministership
Nour party leader Abdallah Badran explained that Mr. ElBaredei's "attitude towards Islamism and his ideology collide with many of the convictions of the majority of Egyptians and that is why we did not welcome his appointment."
Instead, it appears that Ziad Bahaa Eldin, a Mubarak-era official who ran the Egyptian Investment Authority and became an early support of the revolution, may be named interim Prime Minister.
But he is hardly the uniter that some had hoped would step up to the plate – if such a figure could ever be found in an increasingly polarized Egypt.
"Ziad Bahaa-Eldin is smart, honest, and is widely respected. The question is whether he has the capacity to manage the conflicting demands and pressures of Egypt's uncertain politics," Steven Cook, an Egypt specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. "He has the right profile for the moment – perhaps better than [Mohammed] ElBaradei because he doesn't have the baggage – but Egyptian politics are very rough."
Mr. ElBaredei, for his part, denounced the massacre. "Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned," he wrote on Twitter on Monday morning. "Independent investigation a must. Peaceful transition is [the] only way." As threats of violence escalated on Monday, that seemed an increasingly unlikely wish.