IT IS HIGH NOON in Panama. President Eric Delvalle, written off as the puppet of the military strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega, privately demanded that he step down. The general, who stands accused as the drug cartel's man in Panama, refused. With unexpected courage and also, it seems, with American encouragement, President Delvalle then went public. The general responded with a move to appoint a new president, and Mr. Delvalle was forced into hiding. So now Panama has two presidents but, still, one strongman. Protests are being organized against Gen. Noriega, while he attempts to turn to his advantage the popular David-vs.-Goliath resentments born of the still-dominant American position on the Panama Canal.

Something good could yet come out of this latest American-backed effort to establish civilian constitutional rule in Panama. Gen. Noriega, facing drug indictments in Miami, a tightening crisis at home and much international opprobrium for both his criminality and his contempt for democracy, could come to favor retirement to some place that would take him. That would provide his country precious relief and is certainly the outcome most to be desired.

But another more disagreeable outcome is also imaginable, including agitation in the streets leading to repression and a gathering Panamanian-American confrontation over the canal. The prospect is real enough to make many people wonder whether the Panamanian opposition and its American friends, who range from Reagan administration stalwarts to liberal Democrats, have had a concrete plan in mind or whether in their frustration they simply figured to shake things up, hoping to uncork irresistible popular, business and international pressures or to embolden a patriotic colonel.

But however things were brought to this turbulent pass, the basic goal now must be to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the political crisis in Panama and an easing of anxieties about a potential spillover onto the canal. The United States was slow to distance itself from Gen. Noriega, a former partner in assorted intelligence activities. But it seems ready now to apply political and economic pressures -- not military ones -- with some discretion. The aim is to neutralize Gen. Noriega's cynical and false equation of democracy with American intervention and to give other Latin Americans the space they need to come out against a man who mocks democracy in his own country and who may play a larger role than any single man in delivering their countries to the drug maw.