Was this really the ancient land along the banks of the Nile, one of the worlds oldest civilizations? For all the decades of turmoil in the Middle East, it still seemed shocking somehow, the scenes of military personnel moving on and firing on civilians in the streets of Cairo.
But it was real, as real as the blood in the streets, as real as the clubs and the bullets aimed at the supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi who have been protesting the militarys overthrow of the countrys elected president. Its true Morsis government was in chaos, and initially some observers from the United States thought military leaders might bring a sort of democratic order into place.
But now, in a military crackdown on protesters opposed to Morsis fall, over 600 people have died and many thousands more have been wounded.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been saying the path for a (political) solution is still open, but that sounds a bit like a catch-all diplomatic phrase. For his part, President Obama appeared at a press meeting during his vacation in Marthas Vineyard to announce he was calling off the traditional joint military exercises with American and Egyptian troops held every two years. In view of the violence in Egypt, it was the right thing to do.
Even the most sophisticated American diplomats do not pretend to understand the religious and political rivalries that roil this region of the world constantly.
But what is known, and what the United States cannot tolerate, is violence against innocent civilians, including children, even as it supports the idea of replacing Morsi, whose government stumbled from the beginning. He now is under arrest.
At times during the past 50 years, the U.S. has unfortunately cast its lot with new leaders for long-oppressed countries who end up providing only another kind of oppression.
With Egypt, the American position is delicate indeed. There have been strong alliances over many years, sometimes unsettled by the U.S. devotion to the state of Israel, a heavily armed neighbor of Egypt and other Arab countries. And while Egypt gets considerable aid from America (about $1.5 billion annually), it has an array of supporters and multiple sources of income, though its economy now is seriously unstable.
Kerry called the actions of the military deplorable and said continued violence would further tear the Egyptian economy apart. That has negative implications for the American economy and for the nations throughout the region.
Underlying it all is the certainty that an ever-tightening confrontation between supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood and those of the military surely will make Israel all the more apprehensive and uncertain about its own relationship with Egypt just as American leaders work toward the elusive goal of a lasting peace in the Middle East.
The death toll from these confrontations must not go from the hundreds into the thousands. The United States, by virtue of its position as the most powerful nation in the world, has a responsibility to play a role in stemming this violence and doing so quickly. That doesnt mean bringing military force to bear, but Americas might is known to all sides in this confrontation and will not be ignored.