Middle East

Egypt: Death of the Tahrir Square revolution?

Man in Cairo paints mural depicting toppled President Hosni Mubarak (r) and current military ruler Mohammed Hussein Tantawi as two halves of one face (22 May)
Two-faced? Activists claim the military is a continuation of the Mubarak regime

The hopes of Egypt's revolutionaries now lie in tatters.

Far from being the climax of the country's transition to democracy, the presidential elections which ended on Sunday mark one more stage in the struggle against a ruling military council determined to dominate the political game.

Barely had the polling stations closed when the military issued a proclamation which made a mockery of the democratic process.

Real power will lie not with the elected president or the elected parliament, but with an unelected military elite.

Gamble

This represents a significant challenge both to the popular forces in Egypt and to the Obama administration in Washington.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi are adamant he has won the election

The generals may well be gambling that, after 16 months of political turbulence, Egyptians are now exhausted and disillusioned.

It is certainly true that a lot of Egyptians yearn for stability, the restoration of law and order, and the revival of their battered economy.

But the gamble may not pay off. There is a real risk of fresh confrontation.

The Muslim Brotherhood believes its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the election fair and square. It has made it clear it will not remain passive in the face of what it calls the military's "coup".

But its leaders are habitually cautious. They will have to decide if their interests are best served by an all-out confrontation with the military, or by some sort of accommodation.

If the generals are smart and accept a Morsi victory, the second option would be more palatable.

Should the generals try to deny victory to the Islamists, all bets are off.

Obama's choice

For its part, the Obama administration's very public commitment to Egyptian democracy is now being put to the test.

The state department has said it is "deeply concerned" at the military's actions, warning that decisions taken now will have an impact on the US-Egyptian relationship.

But the Egyptian generals may well feel the stakes are so high that vague threats from Washington can be brushed off.

The demise of Egypt's revolution would be a serious blow to the Arab Spring but would not by itself signal its death knell.

Despite the setbacks in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, the regional drama is far from over. The forces of the old order are fighting back - as was to be expected - but their victory is not assured.

A prolonged struggle lies ahead, as revolutionaries and reactionaries settle in for a long-term battle for the region's future.

Roger Hardy is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam (2010) and is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.