So this is how it ends: with the army killing more than 600 protesters, and injuring thousands of others, in the name of restoring order and defeating 'terrorism'. The victims are Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, but the ultimate target of the massacres of 14 August is civilian rule. Cairo, the capital of revolutionary hope two years ago, is now its burial ground.

To each setback they have undergone since the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt's revolutionary forces have responded with the reassuring mantra: 'revolution is a process.' But so is counter-revolution, which seems to have prevailed for the foreseeable future. It won not only because the army and the feloul (remnants of the old regime) had superior resources at their disposal, but because they had a unified sense of their aims, something the leaderless revolutionaries conspicuously lacked. The revolution has been a 'process' in the manner of a 1960s happening, a meeting of different, often bickering forces that shared the stage only to go their own way after Mubarak's overthrow. While accusing one another of betraying the revolution, both liberals and Islamists, at various intervals, tried to cut deals with the army, as if it might be a neutral force, as if the people and the army really were 'one hand', as people had once chanted in Tahrir Square. Neither had the ruthlessness, or the taste for blood, of Khomeini, who began to decapitate the Shah's army as soon as he seized power. While the old regime reassembled its forces, Egypt's revolutionaries mistook their belief in the revolution for the existence of a revolution. By the time Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power on 3 July, the revolution existed mainly in their imagination.

The triumph of the counter-revolution has been obvious for a while, but most of Egypt's revolutionaries preferred to deny it, and some actively colluded in the process, telling themselves that they were allying themselves with the army only in order to defend the revolution. Al-Sisi was only too happy to flatter them in this self-perception, as he prepared to make his move. He, too, styles himself a defender of the revolution. According to the army's narrative, al-Sisi and his colleagues saved Egypt two years ago not only from Mubarak but from his son Gamal, whom he was grooming as his successor and who, it so happens, championed a programme of neoliberal 'reform' that might have threatened the army's economic interests. Now, once again, it is saving Egypt, this time from the Muslim Brotherhood and its foreign supporters, from Hamas to the former American ambassador, Anne Patterson, an object of especially passionate loathing in old regime circles. Among the many illusions to have crumbled since the overthrow of Mubarak is the notion that the military has no interest in direct rule, preferring to exert its influence from behind a civilian façade. Now there is talk of al-Sisi, a wildly popular figure in the anti-Morsi camp, ascending to the presidency (Adly Mansour is obviously a placeholder); most of the newly appointed provincial governors are generals closely allied with the old regime.

The story the army tells about the revolution plays well with a lot of Egyptians, perhaps a majority. The army remains a revered institution, in spite of its vast network of privileges, and even though it is essentially paid to stay out of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And al-Sisi speaks a language with considerable popular appeal, a language of narrow, chauvinistic, Egypt-first nationalism. Egyptian politics has long been poisoned by unusually high levels of xenophobia. Al-Sisi is tapping into a deep well of paranoia, fomented throughout the Mubarak era, when he accuses Morsi of having plotted with Hamas. Thanks to al-Sisi, Egypt's 84 million people have been protected from the 'terrorists' in Gaza.

Al-Sisi's rhetoric may be crude, but it is not desperate, and neither was the repression of 14 August. The attack on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square and other protest camps was carried out in the confidence that many would approve of it, or at least look the other way. After more than two years of political turbulence, economic immiseration and heightened insecurity, few people were eager for another round of confrontation, and the Brothers hadn't convinced anyone beyond their hard core of supporters that Morsi's presidency was a cause worth fighting for. Al-Sisi and the army – praised by John Kerry for 'restoring democracy' when they ousted Morsi – launched their assault also knowing they would face few serious penalties from their foreign sponsors.

The Obama administration cancelled a joint military exercise and postponed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets, but the military aid won't be cut off. (Even if it were, the Saudis have promised to replace it, as they did when the Americans cut off aid to Pakistan in 1998 after its nuclear test.) Al-Sisi knows the Americans' hands are tied in Egypt. Preserving the peace treaty with Israel and bringing order to the Sinai, an increasingly unruly zone of jihadism and drug smuggling, are the United States' two overriding priorities. And an administration that can't prevent its closest ally from building a thousand more homes for Jewish settlers in advance of peace talks can hardly prevent Egypt's generals from clearing Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. In the absence of tougher measures, the only effect of Obama's stern words is to enable the putschists to spar with their patrons in Washington, a confidence trick the Egyptian military has played on its people for years. Mansour said Obama's remarks 'would strengthen the violent armed groups and encourage them in their methods inimical to stability and the democratic transition'.

It was a revealing statement, because there is no stability, there is no democratic transition, and – so far – the Muslim Brothers haven't succumbed to the temptation of violence. But surely one possible effect of the military's campaign – as Mohammed ElBaradei warned when he resigned as vice president – will be to encourage Morsi's supporters, and other, more radical Islamists, to take up arms. (ElBaradei learned, it seems, that he couldn't keep his hands clean if he continued to sit at the generals' table.) The mob attacks on Christians on 15 August are an early indication of who, besides state officials, might be targeted if Egypt's Islamists turn to violence. As Issandr El Amrani has suggested, al-Sisi may be spoiling for a fight: Islamist violence could well play into his hands. If Egypt's patrons in the West and in Saudi Arabia are capable of no more than toothless chastisement when peaceful protesters are killed, they aren't likely to protest when the army kills armed insurgents – particularly if the insurgents are murdering liberals and Christians. We have seen the results of such a strategy in Algeria during the 1990s, and more recently in Syria. The road ahead in Egypt looks very dark indeed.