There is a poll on the Muslim Brotherhood’s English language Web site that asks whether the group should participate in any future election in Egypt. The right answer is yes. But the Brotherhood may not get the chance. After overthrowing President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the army has tried to crush the Brotherhood, making it hard to see how its members could be enticed to rejoin the political fray or, even if they could be, whether other Egyptian factions would let them compete.
Egypt is the largest and most important country in the Arab world. How it evolves politically and economically will have an enormous impact on stability in the Middle East and will serve as a template for other countries in the region. Euphoria over the Arab Spring and its potential for constructive change subsided long ago, but the alarming events of the past 10 days have raised serious questions about what democracy means and, in Washington at least, questions about whether it can take root in Egypt — ever.
It has been especially surprising to watch many Egyptians and Americans try to cast a military coup — which is what the army executed when it deposed Mr. Morsi, detaining him and many of his Brotherhood allies — as a democratic tool. The Obama administration, hoping to avoid a legally mandated cutoff of United States aid to Egypt, thus further inflaming anti-Americanism there, has used tortuous rhetoric to avoid calling a coup a coup, or even condemning it. So have many lawmakers and analysts who say the surest way to protect American interests in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Suez Canal and Egypt’s cooperation in countering terrorism is to work with the army, Egypt’s most powerful institution.
A different but equally pragmatic case is made by Egyptian liberals, secularists and non-Islamists who bravely took to the streets to force the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, voted (in many cases) for Mr. Morsi, then turned against him. As Mr. Morsi proved increasingly eager to impose Islamic authoritarianism on the country, the opposition said it collected more than 20 million signatures on a petition demanding his removal (surpassing the 13 million votes Mr. Morsi won in the 2012 election ) and rallied millions of protesters. In their analysis, the army was simply honoring the people’s will when it forced Mr. Morsi out. Some Egyptians say they will do that again if the next president also fails them.
The basic flaw in these arguments is that coups, forcible overthrows, whatever one calls them, do not provide a foundation for stability or sound representative government. And unlike Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Morsi was not an autocrat imposed by the army, but the country’s first freely elected president. True, he was a disastrous leader. But as The Times has reported, remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s old order worked hard to sabotage him. It would have been better if his opposition, including the protesters, had worked to defeat him at the ballot box.
Many Egyptians say they want a second chance to begin building a “real democracy,” with guaranteed equal rights for all and a separation of religion and politics. They deserve it. But it seems unlikely that the army, which has played a dominant role since 1952 and is now back in control, will help them reach that goal. In addition to appointing the leaders of a new interim government who may or may not have any real power, the generals have dictated a conservative, pro-military interim constitution and set a rushed timetable for elections.
Elections alone, of course, are not enough, as the Morsi debacle proved. Egypt is facing daunting economic and social problems, and it needs to find a consensus way forward to build the institutions — judiciary, electoral system, schools — that allow all citizens a say in civic life, protect against autocratic leaders, and adapt and endure over time. One American analyst, Walter Russell Mead, says the White House should “purge all short- or even medium-term thoughts of promoting Egypt’s transition to democracy.” But that would only ensure that the newly empowered old order retains the upper hand. It remains distressingly unclear whether President Obama believes that promoting Egyptian democracy is a priority of American foreign policy. It should be.

A version of this editorial appeared in print on July 14, 2013, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Is Democracy Possible in Egypt?.