Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal writes: “What is true is that Egypt is in the early stages of Thomas Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.” Summarizing recent violence, he explains:

Timid regional officials who will not stand up to Islamist mob. Furious Coptic youth who no longer accept the cautious dictates of their elders. Conscript soldiers not afraid to disobey their orders. A “free” media that traffics in incitement . . . . And that’s not the half of it. The Sinai is becoming another Yemen, an ungovernable staging ground for terrorism and sabotage. The economy has registered two consecutive quarters of sharply negative growth.

You get the idea. The Post editorial board put it this way:

Several thousand members of the Coptic sect, which makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, were marching to protest the failure by the military government to prevent attacks on their churches. According to independent accounts, they were set upon first by civilians wielding sticks and stones and then by military vehicles, whose crews deliberately drove over unarmed protesters and opened fire with machine guns. . . .

On state television, calls were issued for citizens to take to the streets to defend the army — as if it, and not the Copts, was under attack. Meanwhile, security forces intervened in the studios of independent broadcasters, including U.S.-financed al Hurrah, to prevent them from reporting. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf implausibly blamed the violence on a foreign conspiracy while saying it had “taken us back several steps.” Egyptians took his remarks as a threat to postpone — once again — promised elections.

It may be that democratic elections will improve matters, but we should be cognizant of the very real possibility that in fact things may get worse. Yes, the military has delayed handing control over to civilian authorities, but we have seen little evidence that there are civil institutions, responsible leaders and a democratically inclined electorate that would ensure stability and protect individual rights.

Just as free elections in Gaza in 2006 gave Hamas the “legitimacy” that goes with a public plebisite, there is no guarantee a pro-Western government that respects treaty obligations with Israel would take over in Egypt.

Well, then what is the solution? The beginning point should be some humility. We have no idea at this stage whether what lies ahead will be better or worse.

Back in May a conservative wag wrote: “Do we watch Copts under attack by armed Muslim thugs in Cairo today with the same disgust and horror we felt watching Neda Agha-Soltan cut down in the streets of Tehran by Basij executioners two years ago? Do we learn that 75 percent of Egyptians view the Muslim Brotherhood favorably and 62 percent would like Egyptian law to follow the strictest interpretation of the Koran with the same alarm and dismay we felt seeing Saudi troops enter Bahrain in March (where they remain to this day) to help put down the uprising there?”

So far, as my colleague Jackson Diehl points out, the only model in the region that has managed a relatively swift transformation from depotism to democracy is Iraq. (“It turns out that the end of autocracy in the Arab Middle East, unlike in Central Europe or Asia, will not happen peacefully. People power isn’t working. Dictators such as Assad, Moammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, backed by mountains of weapons and armies bound to them by tribe or sect, prefer to fight to the death rather than quietly yield. Despite seeing Hosni Mubarak in his courtroom cage — or maybe because of it — they don’t shrink from crimes against humanity.”) I agree with Diehl that “The Arab Spring, in short, is making the invasion of Iraq look more worthy — and necessary — than it did a year ago.” But there is no conceivable way the United States can or should occupy other countries in the region.

So we sit and watch from afar. We can cajole a little. We can try to condition aid. But in point of fact the Egyptians will have to learn for themselves the dangers of anarchy, extremism and intolerance. We should pray it is not too bloody or too prolonged a process.