Middle East

Egypt's revolution, one year on

Women at a rally honouring demonstrators killed in clashes with security forces in Tahrir Square, Cairo (23 January 2012)
Image caption The revolutionaries are in constant danger of being marginalised

It was all so simple a year ago, when the people rose up and the dictator fell. Egyptians were euphoric. The world and the world's media were enthralled.

Now the situation is cloudy and confusing, and the world is less sure what to think.

But it could hardly have been otherwise. Revolutions are by their nature unpredictable. The transition was bound to be fraught.

Tunisia, by comparison, was lucky to avoid some of Egypt's missteps.

A fateful triangle

The struggle for power in Egypt is a three-cornered contest between the revolutionaries, the Islamists and the army.

None of the three is united or homogeneous. All are being transformed, in uncomfortable ways, by the situation in which they find themselves.

The revolutionaries - the young activists who turned Tahrir Square into a carnival of freedom - are in constant danger of being marginalised.

Essentially anarchic and leaderless, they have been unable (and sometimes unwilling) to turn themselves into election-fighting machines.

Their strength is moral - they remain the conscience of the revolution. But in other respects they are significantly weaker than the other two players.

Brotherhood ascendant

Over the past year, the country's long-established Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has shown time and again its unparalleled popular support.

Now parliamentary elections have assured it a leading role in the transition to civilian rule.

Image caption The Muslim Brotherhood won nearly half of the seats in the new parliament

Long suppressed, the Islamists have emerged into the light of day. But if this is a moment of triumph, it is also a time of challenge.

Islamist leaders have accepted the need for consensus because they have no choice. They know they must reassure a wide range of people - secularists, Christians, women - who deeply distrust them.

And they are also constrained, most obviously, by the power of the army.

Generals' discomfort

Talk of a conspiracy between the army and the Islamists is wide of the mark.

The two are wary of one another, even if events have sometimes forced them into tactical accommodation.

As for the generals, they have been thrust unwillingly onto the political stage.

Contrary to what many suppose, they are anxious to leave the limelight - once their most important interests are safeguarded.

Above all, they want to ensure that no future civilian government starts scrutinising their budget or questioning their perks and privileges.

That is a price civilian politicians will probably accept, at least for now.

Image caption Egypt's generals have promised to step aside after presidential elections due in June

Search for consensus

So a process of bargaining is under way to make sure the military relinquish power by June, as they have pledged.

A key element of the bargain will be a new constitution, whose drafting the new parliament must set in motion.

But this is no dry academic exercise.

The constitution will determine whether Egypt has a presidential or a prime ministerial system, how far it is governed by secular or Islamic law, and provide a framework for civil-military relations.

Consensus is not impossible. But it will be a bumpy road.

Roger Hardy is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam, and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.