In the mythology of Egypt, the Nile was the steady river, one that gave life but also one to be watched carefully. Too little water and the earth is scorched, the crops perish and civic order is undone. Too much water and havoc ensues, the granaries are destroyed and the people lose faith in their deities. The myth of a stable "hydraulic society" where the rulers were deities is at a great variance with the history of a land that has known ferocious rebellions, and that has so often fallen short of its expectations of deliverance.
There is no deliverance within sight for the untold numbers out in Egypt's public squares today. The "street" shall not deliver order, adjudicate fundamental struggles between Egyptians keen to live in a secular state and those who have been biding their time to impose an Islamic order.
The world beyond the Nile River Valley is witnessing a standoff in the latest battle for the soul of the Arab Spring: the secularists, the modernists, call them what you will, who have flooded Cairo's Tahrir Square, arrayed against the throngs gathered in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in the shadow of Rab'ah al-Adawiyah Mosque in Cairo's Nasr district.
The mayadin (the squares) can't say how Egypt ought to be ruled, yet this is what the country is left with. Coups, assassinations and the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak robbed the country of the political vitality, and parliamentary practice, it had known for 30 years beginning in 1922 under a functioning constitutional monarchy. In the decades since the military coup of 1952, the country has been served an antimodernist fare by corrupt and nepotistic rulers. Egypt fell behind in the race of nations, grew poorer, more embittered, its ideas of its own specialness battered by harsh economic and social verdicts.
It is hard to remember now that this country was once on the Grand Tour, sought by travelers and literati the world over. The green spaces in its cities were eaten up by sprawl and numbers. That great Cairene, the Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, once spoke of his city as though describing some place from antiquity: He had been born in 1911, Cairo had 700,000 inhabitants, Egypt as a whole less than 11 million people. No one is quite sure of the numbers now, the figure of 90 million is thrown around, and what grace Cairo once had can only by glimpsed in the newsreels and old movies of decades past.
Egyptians pride themselves on their country's civility and good manners. Egypt is not Syria, they say, it is not riven by sectarian fault-lines and hatreds, its armed forces are not killer brigades fighting for a barbarous ruler. Nor is it Libya or Iraq. Egyptians console themselves that slaughter is not part of the nation's tradition. They point to the final days of Mubarak, brought to court on a stretcher, and contrast it with the gruesome end of Moammar Gadhafi next door in Libya.
There is no end to the consolations. Egypt is not Iran, or the Wahhabi realm in the Arabian Peninsula: Faith is light and forgiving here, it was said. Islam came to an ancient country and had to reach an accommodation with a Coptic church indigenous to the land. Pharaonic, Coptic, Greco-Roman, and Islamic ideas and loyalties mixed in a country at the crossroads of continents. All of this is true, but the country is bereft, and may have exhausted its myths.
The turn to the army as a deus ex machina for a great, secular-Islamist split is the desperate recourse of a population in trouble. The Egyptian army's proclamation on Monday that it would give President Mohammed Morsi 48 hours to "meet the demands" of the people would have been laughable had Egypt's public life at the moment allowed for humor. On Tuesday, Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party rejected the military's ultimatum. Senior Brotherhood leader Muhammad al-Biltaji called on supporters to defend Mr. Morsi's "legitimacy," saying a coup would only succeed "over our dead bodies."
Sadly, Egypt has been here before, in 1952. Political order had given way, the political parties of the constitutional monarchy were riddled with corruption, and the Muslim Brotherhood stood ready to feed on the chaos. In January of that year, mobs set to the torch much of modern Cairo. The army stepped in, "reluctantly" of course, to offer a reprieve. Egyptians had looked to the army for redemption and got dictatorship in return. It was to rule for six decades.
More recently, in the aftermath of the 2011 fall of the Mubarak dictatorship, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had the run of the country for 16 months. Its reign was an unhappy one, and the protesters who took to Tahrir Square wanted them back in their barracks. Liberals later gave Mr. Morsi, elected to the presidency in June 2012, no small measure of credit for reining in the power of the officer corps and for sacking Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto strongman of the transitional period.
In a note of supreme irony, the secular crowd now proclaims that "the people and the army and the police are one hand." Yet the revolt that swept the old order in early 2011 had been motivated by a consuming hatred of the police. The police under Mubarak had been lawless, cruel and corrupt. They were seen by secularists and Islamists alike as thugs in uniform; torture and perversity ran rampant in their detention centers.
Yet unlike its approach with the military, the Morsi government chose not to take on the police. Indeed, it gave them new weapons and financial concessions in the hope of pacifying them. They did not return the favor: Policemen have been out in the streets demonstrating against the government, and they have steadfastly refused to maintain public order. It is not a pretty bargain that the secularists strike with the army—and the police. The assumption is that this cynicism is warranted if it gets rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But a larger price will be paid down the road.
A young Egyptian engineer trained in Canada, a lyricist about his homeland, wrote to me a few days ago from Cairo about the standoff in the streets. He had gone to see the Tahrir Square crowd, and then the adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tahrir Square, he wrote, was "technically weaker but had the momentum." He sensed no fear there. The Muslim Brotherhood crowd had the power, but was nervous. "I guess we have reached the worst situation possible, two parties sure of winning."
There is no iron law of stability and social peace in this former land of pharaohs. Pressed to the limit by an economy struggling to keep afloat, the Egyptian people have reached a reckoning. The chronicles telling of their country's knack for survival, and for pulling back from the brink, will have to be read with caution.
E.M. Forster once memorably wrote of Egypt as a country accustomed to harmonizing contending assertions. In the days to come, and in the battle of the mayadin, that proposition will meet an unforgiving test.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).