The election of President Mohamed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency two years ago was seen as a historic turning point for the Arab world. The people of the largest Arab nation were choosing their own leader for the first time and his presidency was seen as a test case for those who argued that democracy would temper the ideological extremism of Islamicist groups like the president's Muslim Brotherhood. Placed in the larger context of the Arab Spring, the seeming injection of popular sovereignty into the world's least-democratic region, Egypt was seen as the bellwether of a new Arab political discourse. The fact remains that it can still play that role. But the military overthrow of Mr Morsi, the demonstrations that paved the way to this intervention, and the president's own blunders have dashed any hopes that what was sowed by the Arab Spring would lead to a speedy democratic harvest.
Liberal democracy may yet take root in the Arab world, but it will be a long, tumultuous and probably violent process. This was evident in the other nations that had been part of the Arab Spring. Libya has become a nation of tribal militias, Syria a seemingly never-ending civil war and Yemen an unstable nation that it has been for decades. But Tunisia and Egypt were the two nations that seemed to be taking the right steps towards democracy. The international consensus seems to be to accept that Mr Morsi is gone, but to push the Egyptian military to hold new elections soon. But states should urge the military to avoid witch-hunting the Brotherhood's leadership or making Mr Morsi a scapegoat. Arab democracy will not be helped by any legitimisation of army interventions. A more difficult bridge that needs to be built is the ideological link between democracy and secularism.
However, there is some silver lining in this week's events in Egypt: the most important being a sense that Islamicist politics has overplayed its hand across the Muslim world. Mr Morsi seems to have recognised, too late, that his attempts to push the Brotherhood's religious agenda were backfiring. Islamicists are finding that there is a zero-sum game between winning popular support and imposing the Sharia elsewhere as well. Syria's rebel coalition is splitting on this issue. Iran's new president is calling for a roll-back of the hardline agenda of the incumbent. In Turkey, the ruling Islamic government has found its commitment to secular constitutionalism and democracy has allowed it to survive a recent wave of protests. Egypt's interim government needs to hold elections as soon as possible so that both the anger of the streets and the frustrations of the Islamicists can be peacefully channeled into the ballot box - and Egypt can once again tread the path towards liberal democracy.