It is an uncomfortable truth: Dictatorship often rests on a measure of consent. A people acquiesce in their own servitude, forge their own chains.
An ordinary man obliges, and the crowd projects on him its need for a redeemer. Forgive Egypt's Gen. Abdul Fattah Sissi his flagrant political transgressions—the sacking in July of a legitimately elected president. The secular crowd, all those good and decent liberals, were clamoring for military intervention.
Young rebels who had come together to topple the old Mubarak dictatorship now conspired with the military and police to overthrow the first elected civilian ruler in Egyptian history. It was odd. Men and women who had given military dictatorship decades of obedience and indulgence were now driven by a spirit of impatience with the soldiers.
Some of the leading men of the realm were on hand when Gen. Sissi—hitherto unknown, promoted by Mohammed Morsi himself over more senior colleagues in the army—announced the end of the Morsi presidency. On Wednesday, Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the luminaries who had been tasked with giving the coup a liberal cover abroad, at least had the decency to call it quits and distance himself from the violence unleashed by the security forces on the supporters of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. ElBaradei's resignation from the vice presidency came quickly on the heels of that brutal action. "It has become difficult for me to hold responsibility for decisions I do not agree with, whose consequences I fear," he said. "I cannot be responsible for one drop of blood in front of God, and then in front of my conscience, especially with my belief that we could have avoided it."
In truth, there was no avoiding the bloodshed. It was willful to assume that the Brotherhood would go gently into the night—that a political party that had pined for power for eight long decades, that had won outright parliamentary and presidential elections and secured the passage of a constitution of its own making, would bow to a military writ. No one who followed the official media, who observed erstwhile decent thinkers give themselves over to a new belligerence and venom, would have been surprised by the bloodshed.
Egyptians have always prided themselves on their peaceful temperament. Their country was not Iraq or Syria or Algeria. They had seemed confident that blood would not be spilled in their midst. But vengeance stalked their country in the year of the Morsi presidency.
National chauvinism was unleashed, and the dream of an Egypt without beards and veils took hold. There was in the land a clash of two fundamentalisms, it seemed—the utopia of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the modernist conceit that the reign of the Brotherhood was foisted on a sophisticated, progressive country.
The crowd that gave the coup its blessing ran away from the reality of their homeland—the crippling poverty, the illiteracy, the dispossessed who saw in Mohammed Morsi, a peasant's son, one of their own. And in their willful escape and evasion, those who cheered the military seizure of power were willing to entertain the darkest of conspiracies.
The rise of the Brotherhood was an American plot, they maintained, part of an American scheme to subjugate Egypt and deny it its place among the nations. Political Islam itself was disowned, turned into an American creation. Mohammed Morsi had kept the peace with Israel, brokered an accommodation between Hamas and Israel: This, too, became proof of this malignant American design.
The rule of reason had quit Egypt. Under the old regime, Egyptians came to believe everything and nothing as their military rulers took them out of political life, denied them the chance to participate in the making of their own history. The stridency, the violence with which they pronounced on political matters in the year behind us, issued out of this damage to the culture sustained in the years of authoritarianism.
In truth, patience could have served the Egyptians. There was no urgency for a coup d'état. Mr. Morsi had the presidency, but the army was beyond his control, the police was a law unto itself, and the judiciary a truculent citadel of the old regime. The feloul, the remnants of the old regime, still had the commanding heights of the economy.
The Brotherhood had sown its own poor seeds, and the bloom was off that Islamist plant. The Islamist project was in retreat, but the pace of history had to be forced, and the Brotherhood had to be put to flight. A frenzy came to surround Abdul Fattah Sissi: He was the reincarnation of the beloved strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser. He would sack the Brotherhood and then return to the barracks.
Thus would the great schism in Egypt, the fight over the place of Islam in public life, be papered over. The army would give the secularists the victory that eluded them at the ballot box.
The two pro-Morsi encampments that the Brotherhood and its supporters put up in Cairo had to be stormed. The crowds that overturned Messrs. Mubarak and Morsi had once owned Tahrir Square, had brought the life of the country to a standstill. Their agitation and flamboyance had become the stuff of legend, and the army itself had paid tribute to the protesters. No such regard was to be shown the Islamists.
In this Egyptian drama, the United States did not give the best of itself. When the Obama administration could not call the coup d'état by its name, we put on display our unwillingness to honor our own democratic creed. Egypt has long been in the American strategic orbit. When our secretary of state opined that the army was "restoring democracy," we gave away the moral and strategic incoherence of an administration that has long lost its way.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).