Optimists have promoted the notion that Egypt will show how to make the necessary transition from military rule to democracy. Pessimists, on the contrary, have been warning that the Muslim Brothers have enough popular appeal to set up an Islamic dictatorship.
Parliamentary elections have already given the Muslim Brothers and other Islamic extremists a majority. The hope was that presidential elections would provide checks and balances, however imperfect. Some of the candidates occupied the middle ground; either they had supported the military but not too much, or they were Islamists but not too extreme. All failed. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brothers candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former general from the inner ruling circle, were virtually equal with a quarter of the vote each. The runoff between them in mid-June will decide what kind of a country Egypt is going to be.
The ideological incompatibility between the two final candidates is not open to compromise. For 30 years Hosni Mubarak was an arbitrary ruler imposing a stultifying hand on his country, but under him, politics were at least stable and predictable. The revolution his misrule did so much to foster has wrecked the economy, blighted tourism, and led to such widespread crime that the police no longer try to contain it. There are frightening uncertainties of the kind that carry seeds of violence. The electoral process offers flimsy protection.
For the moment, both Morsi and Shafiq are trying to win the support of those who voted for candidates occupying the middle ground. The military can call out the tanks; the Muslim Brothers can call out the street. The latter have also been able to dominate a parliamentary committee set up to draft the new constitution. This committee has so far postponed its report.
The strange situation arises that Egypt is almost sure to choose a president before his powers have been defined. Conditions look ripe for an imminent test of strength. Optimists and pessimists are of one mind about that.