General Hussain Tantawi Image Credit: AP

‘You know, it’s not easy to govern Egypt,’ warned King Farouq as he was being seen off aboard the royal yacht after being deposed by general Mohammad Najeeb in July, 1952. “Take good care of the army,” added the king, implying who controlled the army would control Egypt. Najeeb, who, along with Jamal Nasser, led the first post-War revolution, replied: “The army and Egypt are in good hands.”

And Egypt has remained in the good hands of the generals ever since. The Egyptians, and the world, thought things had changed with the Tahrir Square revolution last year. Their hopes got a fresh boost earlier this month with the conviction of the man who was the lord of all he surveyed in Egypt until last year.

Who could have ever imagined that one day, Hosni Mubarak would not just be stripped of power, but would actually be made to account for his actions? Mubarak’s conviction was not just a rare moment of triumph against a lifetime of abuse of power; it heralded the crumbling of a corrupt order.

But the celebration was clearly premature.

The sweeping moves by the self-styled military council over the past few days have sparked fears in Egypt and beyond that the Arab Spring has come to an end. The dream of a democratic Middle East has run into the stony wall of reality, if not totally shattered.

In a way, there had always been apprehensions of a power grab by the generals at the height of the Tahrir Square agitation, especially after Mubarak’s departure. The young and restless of the Arab world’s most populous nation and the more experienced Islamists, however, kept their peace in the interest of a smooth and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

But that was not to be. The military, having ruled Egypt directly or indirectly for six decades, was never willingly going to cede its stranglehold over the political and security establishment and levers of power. The events over the past few days have underscored that reality.

Last week, even as a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood was claiming victory of its presidential candidate, Mohammad Mursi, the generals were unveiling a new “constitutional declaration,” granting themselves sweeping powers and clipping the wings of the incoming president. For starts, the new president will have no power and control over the army. He will also have no power over legislation or the legislature, which in any case has ceased to exist. On the other hand, the military council will have total control over all legislation, including a veto power on new constitution and virtually all arms of the state.

Two days before the presidential run-off, the military council had the parliament dissolved, five months after it was elected in the first ever free polls. Incidentally, the Muslim Brotherhood had swept the parliamentary elections, setting the cat among the pigeons. The constitutional court also cleared the way for Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s prime minister, to fight the presidential run-off.

By the way, advisers to the military council suggest that the new president elected after such fanfare could be for only a short term as a new constitution, being drafted under the aegis of the Supreme Judicial Council, would need a new president.

So Egypt is back to square one. The country will at last have a new democratically elected leader, but he will be little more than a puppet in the hands of the military council, headed by General Hussain Tantawi — Mubarak’s long-time friend and defence minister. The Generals will continue to call the shots, no matter who is chosen by the people of Egypt. If this isn’t a mockery of democracy and epic sacrifices offered by the Egyptians all these years, especially over the past year, what is?

The Generals are playing a dangerous game which could have disastrous consequences not just for Egypt but the whole region. The Egyptians did not throw out Mubarak so they could embrace his cronies. The people have spoken and everyone must obey their verdict. Any attempt to steal or meddle with people’s mandate, which manifests itself in terms of a new beginning, could plunge the Arab world’s most critical nation into endless chaos.

The angry demonstrations at Tahrir Square over the past few days leave no one in doubt that the Egyptians are not prepared to stand and stare while the revolution that they started last year at the iconic square gets stolen now. The protests begun by the Muslim Brotherhood have been joined by all sections of society, both left and right, not to mention the youth.

Mursi, who has almost certainly won the presidential polls, has been measured in his response to the military council’s ominous talk of dealing with “attempts to harm public or private interests with utmost firmness and strength.”

The man waiting in the wings insists that the movement wants “neither violence, nor confrontation” with the military. But having been suppressed all these years, Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters — who now include a cross-section of Egyptian society as diverse as the leftist April 6th Movement and Mohammad Al Baradei’s Movement for Change — are not prepared to take it lying down if the popular will is tampered with.

No matter what the military and secular, westernised elites think, Muslim Brotherhood is not the underground and extremist movement that it has been painted out to be all these years. It has come to be accepted by the larger Egyptian society. It is about time the military establishment realised this too.

The military will ignore the new political realities at an incalculable cost to Egypt. Without doubt, a large, complex and volatile country like Egypt needs a strong army and stable political and security infrastructure. No one is denying that. However, it cannot be at the cost of political freedom. Having played a strong leadership role in the nation’s affairs since 1952, it is time for the generals to pass on the baton to the elected representatives and leaders of the people. We have seen what has happened in Algeria when people’s mandate was not honoured by the men in khaki.

If Egypt has to make a fresh start as a nation and look to the future, the army will have to return to the barracks. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for once got it right when she said: “There’s no going back.” The Egyptians are yearning for real and meaningful change. Egypt wants to move on. Don’t stand in the way.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based commentator. Follow him on twitter @aijazzakasyed