In many places in the Muslim world, the rich promise of an "Arab spring," when hopes for a reasonably peaceful transition from despotic rule to more democratic forms of government were high, is turning into a politically perilous autumn. Egypt is the latest example. Weekend clashes there between Coptic Christians, Muslims and government troops left at least 26 dead in the wake of the worst street violence in the country since former dictator Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February.
Most of the dead and injured, observers reported, appeared to be Christians, though military authorities said three soldiers were believed to have been killed. The violence erupted when Christians attempted to stage what was intended as a peaceful protest about an attack on a church last week. The situation quickly deteriorated into violence that exposed the fragile framework of the post-Mubarak government and sectarian divisions within the country.
The protesters said they were attacked by "thugs" -- thought to be Muslim extremists. The military was ordered to restore order, but did not. Some witnesses say events spiraled out of control Sunday after military vehicles struck some of the protesters. Skirmishes between Copts and police continued Monday in Cairo even as military, political and religious leaders sought to restore calm.
The weekend's strife is a reminder that few of the reforms sought in February and promised by the military council that now rules in Mubarak's place have been implemented. There's little visible progress toward those goals, a fact that contributes directly to the tensions that sparked the confrontations that took place Sunday.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled next month, but there are fears within and outside Egypt that continuing violence will overshadow or even disrupt the vote. There is understandable worry, too, that the chaotic situation in the country will prevent an orderly transition from the present government to an elected one when the time to do so arrives.
The violence in Egypt quickly attracted attention from global leaders. It should. Egypt, even in its current state, is the political linchpin of the Muslin Middle East Events there likely will set the tone and mood for political change elsewhere in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama quickly made his views known.
"As Egyptians shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities -- including Copts -- musts be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of protest and religious freedom. These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive," a White House statement said. Spokesmen for the European Union echoed his comments.
Elections should be held in November as planned. The longer they are delayed -- they've already been postponed once -- the greater the possibility that the movement toward democracy, already slow, will stop. That likely would be disastrous for Egypt, for the Middle East and for the rest of the world.