The knives -- or more properly the scalpels -- are drawn in the Egyptian public square. The liberal forums and the state media are suddenly filled with discussions of illness, with the workings of cancer, with the way diseased cells spread unless “excised” and the tumors removed.

Hail the surgeons who perform the needed operations. They must be possessed of steady hands and be precise; they must do their work and check again to make sure that the damaged organs are completely removed. “Istisal,” surgical removal, is the word of the day among erstwhile decent men and women, who express their fondness for the removal of tumors.

In the fairly independent forum Al Masry Al Youm, a well-known commentator, Tarek El-Ghazali Harb, sees “total excision of the Muslim Brothers as the only proper cure.” It is a “satanic group,” the Brotherhood, allowed to “prey on a weak Egyptian body whose immune system had been damaged by ignorance and poverty and disease, in precisely the same fashion the dreaded cancerous tumors spread and take hold.”

The man is a surgeon to boot, and he claims professional authority to pronounce on the condition of his homeland. “There is no room,” he writes, “for any reconciliation” with the Brotherhood:

“We must count them, name them, list their occupations, make certain that we don’t allow them to spread their poison among the young, as has been their way. We must not let them roam free in this country, enjoying its blessings, drinking from its Nile River after they betrayed the homeland and sold it for the cheapest of coin. As for the millions, the ignorant and deluded people taken in, they, too, should be isolated and studied, helped psychologically so that our political dictionary will forever be rid of the mention of the Brotherhood.”

‘Cancerous Cancerous’

A columnist in the same paper, on the very same day, claims no surgical authority, but does the surgeon one better. His article is titled “Cancerous Cancerous.” There is no mention of the Muslim Brotherhood here, no reference to General Abdelfatah al-Seesi performing his medical wonders.

The piece is delivered as a medical bulletin. Cancer is a clever, tricky disease, Ramy Galal Amer writes. It has active cells and dormant ones that work best when the body is weak or at rest. Cancer is aided by a patient’s genetic code. Radiation and chemotherapy can slow down the spread of the disease, but surgery is best, followed by a period of recovery. “Abdication will lead to a certain death.” The metaphor leaves no ambiguity: Egypt has the cancerous disease in its DNA.

Egyptian liberalism is girded for total war. Crushed for decades by the men in uniform, it now looks to the officer corps as redeemers. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled from 1954 to 1970, was the bane of the liberals: He trampled on civil liberties, diminished the liberal class and owned “the street,” the crowd, which deified him and thrilled to his oratory. The liberals cowered before him, and the few who ran afoul of his writ filled the political prisons.

Now, a little more than four decades after the passing of the great man, the liberal class has all but anointed the hitherto obscure al-Seesi as the Nasser of our time.

The general has obliged the crowd: On several occasions he appeared in public with dark glasses, an essential accessory of despotic power -- he even wore them to read a speech. He had been a man of the shadows, chief of intelligence, in a country that suffered grievously under the intelligence services. The general posing as a redeemer was, in truth, an embodiment of the inability of Egypt to give birth to participatory politics.

Reflexive Pride

The surrender of the liberals, now gripped by a spirit of vengeance, is the shameful surprise of this moment of Egyptian history. “This is not us. It’s not Egypt at all. We are not happy with death and blood,” said Israa, an Egyptian woman, who gave only her first name to a foreign reporter. Israa gave voice to a reflexive, unexamined pride -- the good, peaceful land, whose life has been regulated, since the dawn of history, by a steady, gentle river.

Now go tell that old, timeless idea of Egypt to Mohamed ElBaradei, the celebrated Egyptian liberal who, as the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had returned to his country crowned with a Nobel Peace Prize. He was glorified on the Egyptian street for having frustrated, as best he could, the George W. Bush administration’s resort to war in Iraq.

ElBaradei had given his blessing to the July 3 coup. He had given the interim regime a respectable facade when he accepted the vice presidency. He opposed the storming of the two encampments of the Brotherhood; he had foreseen the bloody outcome and sought to distance himself from it.

His resignation was the only honorable thing open to him. After that decision, his secular allies wanted him tried for treason: He was a Freemason, a tool of the Americans, an enemy of the valiant Egyptian army, a covert ally of the Muslim Brotherhood determined to use it for his own bid for power. ElBaradei has reportedly left Cairo for Vienna, his old domicile.

For now, Egypt is done with patience and compromise. I have known that country the full length of my adult life, marveled at its wisdom and subtlety, and have written of it as a scholar since the early 1970s. From my home in Beirut, I read its great novelists, listened to its singers, savored its films and saw it the way Israa described it to the foreign reporter who queried her about her homeland. This Egypt, I will admit, has taken me by surprise.

(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.”)

To contact the writer of this article: Fouad Ajami at mjring@stanford.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.