Watching these scenes, many Americans may conclude that the Arab Spring has birthed a new era of radical Islam. But first, consider these facts: In contrast to the heady revolutionary days when a million people filled Tahrir Square, Friday's crowd was relatively puny. (The Associated Press estimated that it numbered 10,000, but it looked far smaller to me.) Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood did not take part. Nor did the al-Nour Party, a Salafi group that has opted for politics, and that won around 20 percent of parliamentary seats in 2011.
My point: Rather than demonstrating the Salafis' strength, this rally was a sign of their weakness. The fundamentalists were frustrated that the draft constitution doesn't specifically embrace sharia. True, liberals fear that the draft could limit women's rights and give the president too many powers. But the fight to shape Egypt's future - and that of the entire region - is still far from resolved.
While most nascent Mideast democracies have voted Islamists into office, the outcome of the Arab revolts is still uncertain and subject to influence by outside aid and pressure. These revolts could as easily produce renewed dictatorships, failed states, or Islamist triumphs. In some cases, Islamists may even be voted out of power.
"We are going to need a second or third revolution after Bashar al-Assad falls," one Syrian civilian activist told me, referring to likely upheavals over the next decade. That sums up the outlook for much of the Middle East.
This theme - the need for a continuing revolution - recurred repeatedly in my conversations over the last two weeks with Syrian rebels and a wide variety of Egyptians. In Cairo, for example, both Salafis and liberals said the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic credentials had already been affected by its ascent to power.
"Ordinary people don't see any change. The only change is removing Mubarak and having Morsi," said Emad Gad, a Copt and an elected Social Democratic member of the (now dissolved) parliament. "The Muslim Brothers do not want to apply sharia, but they want to control the state," he added, and to maximize their power.
The Salafis, too, express skepticism about the Brothers' Islamist cred. "We consider Morsi to be secular," said Yusri Mohammed Fahmy, a heavyset man sitting beside his shrouded wife in the square.
None of this means the Brotherhood has abandoned its long-term dream of creating an Islamic state. But the desperate need to jump-start a failing economy tempers such aspirations. Brotherhood officials who operated under the radar for decades now have to worry about attracting international investment and obtaining desperately needed foreign loans (which gives the United States and Europe some leverage). Morsi also has to address his pledges to ease traffic congestion, improve garbage collection, and create jobs. So far, he has failed on all counts
Assuming that new parliamentary elections are held next year, many Egyptians expect Brotherhood candidates to fare far worse than in 2011. Nor do they believe the Salafis can greatly expand their electoral margin. (The militants I spoke with in the square insisted that they wouldn't return to violence but would take to the streets.)
The Islamists' long-term hold on power isn't guaranteed. Egypt's political fate will depend heavily on whether non-Islamist parties can finally organize into a coalition. Some Egyptians even speculate that a weary public would welcome a military coup, though that appears unlikely. What is certain is that Egyptian politics are likely to be bumpy and uncertain for a long time to come.
And then there is Syria, where Salafis are also making news, because they've formed brigades that are in the forefront of the battle against Assad. Yet Syrian opposition leaders tell me the Salafi trend doesn't have deep roots in their country, and some of these brigades have infuriated ordinary Syrians with their callous killing of prisoners and acts of thievery. As for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, it has no strength inside the country, because it was brutally crushed in the 1980s by Assad's father, Hafez.
Islamists do have the advantage of being better organized and of appealing to traditionally pious Syrians. But in a multiethnic, multireligious, multi-sectarian country, it's highly unclear what kind of system will emerge after the fall of Assad. The West could still influence the outcome, if the United States and Europe finally get serious about aiding the non-Islamist opposition.
All this is by way of saying that outside observers should not jump to any conclusions when they see a parade of bearded men with black Islamic flags marching into Tahrir Square.
Trudy Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.