July 30, 2013

AFTER THE weekend’s horrific violence in Egypt, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel telephoned their counterparts in Cairo to urge the interim government to step back from the brink. Mr. Hagel called again on Tuesday and spoke to Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi from power as Egypt’s elected president. After the call, Mr. Hagel’s spokesman reported they discussed the need for an “inclusive reconciliation process.” On the ground, there’s scant evidence of such a process.

Just the opposite seems to be the trajectory of the military leaders who seized power a month ago in what the Obama administration still refuses to call a coup. On Saturday, street protests in Cairo and elsewhere ended in the deaths of more than 80 Muslim Brotherhood members and injuries to hundreds more. It was the second mass killing of Islamists since the coup on July 3. On Monday, the authorities arrested two moderate Islamist leaders and took actions that could foreshadow a still-deeper crackdown and declaration of a state of emergency. There was a brief respite Tuesday when the European Union’s senior foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, was taken to see Mr. Morsi at an undisclosed location in the middle of the night. She reported that he is well, but there was no sign that the interim government intends to back off plans to prosecute him on dubious charges of espionage and murder.

President Obama has been cautious, urging dialogue and delaying the delivery of four F-16s to the Egyptian military as a sign of displeasure. The administration appears reluctant to take more decisive action, such as tightening the flow of other aid, preferring instead to warn the interim government of the consequences of further violence and use the threat as leverage. But there’s little sign that Gen. Sissi is listening to the protests from Washington and elsewhere. The leverage doesn’t seem to be having much impact. The administration soon will face starker choices.

Much is uncertain about how the Muslim Brotherhood will react to the crackdown. With Mr. Morsi held incommunicado and the movement’s other leaders imprisoned or staging a sit-in in Cairo, it is not clear if the coup and violence that followed will shake the Brotherhood’s commitment to nonviolence. But some members will certainly be tempted to retaliate for having political power wrenched from their hands so abruptly.

Erasing the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene — as Gen. Sissi seems intent on doing — is impossible. To attempt it is to play with fire. It could create a schism that would put Egypt on a road toward civil war with dire consequences. Violent uprisings in Syria and Egypt at the same time would be particularly dangerous for Israel, the United States’ strongest ally in the region. Bringing Egypt back from the edge of disaster ought to be one of Mr. Obama’s most urgent priorities, and that may require rethinking his policy. Forbearance and obfuscation haven’t done the trick.