WASHINGTON -- A year ago February, the "Arab Spring" of revolutionary change hit, first Tunisia, and then the Arab world's largest nation, Egypt. Like an inexorable wind of transformation, it swept across the deserts of western Arabia. The "ancien regime" of Mubarak, father and sons, was disgraced, the Islamists were abidingly distrusted, and only the Egyptian military retained the confidence of the people.
In Tahrir Square, the military largely kept order and the Egyptians covered them with flowers. Over and over the sentiment heard and reported was how lucky the Egyptian people were, for all their suffering, that at least the soldiers were on their side.
Then the military jailed one of their own, the disgraced President Hosni Mubarak. In a past interview with Mubarak, I remember asking him what was the happiest time in his life, thinking that, like President Sadat, he would murmur something about when his first son was born or when he became president. But, no. His eyes grew misty and finally he said, "Oh, when I was a pilot. I loved flying, I just LOVED flying."
Doubtless in the last year, as he was tried successfully for treason while lying on a gurney in a cage in the courts he once called his own, he has wished he were flying again.
His love of the air force didn't stop the military command in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from prosecuting Mubarak, and his two sons as well. But if that pleased the Islamists out on the streets and just about everybody else, what came next did not.
Long-awaited presidential elections were finally held last weekend all over Egypt. The lucky dog of a winner could either be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, or the ancien regime's former air force general, Ahmed Shafik. But it got confusing in recent weeks as the military peeled off one power from the presidency after another. The Islamic-controlled parliament was dissolved and walled off on the streets from protesters; the military would write a new constitution; the new president -- Morsi, the Islamist -- has a role largely subject to the wishes of the SCAF.
"Military Transfers Power, to Military" was the headline in the independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm. Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, said on Twitter: "SCAF isn't going to transfer any real power. Back to the beginning." And moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a presidential candidate in the first round of voting, said, "The 'unconstitutional declaration' continues an outright military coup."
That word, "coup," was indeed the one heard even early in the week, as the clever Egyptians quickly figured out how they were being used this time. Sometimes it was "coup"; sometimes it was "soft coup." But one thing was sure: Those nicely uniformed soldiers who guarded the protesters in the streets a year ago were surely not guarding their rights now. The military had decided to act -- for themselves.
This was unforeseen, except by unusual intellectual minds. Dr. M. Cherif Bassiouni, one of the world's great international law professors and professor emeritus from DePaul in Chicago, told me in the very beginning of the Arab Spring that the military's plan was for it to take over. I didn't believe him (I should have known better than that because he is virtually always right), but we didn't have time at that particular moment to talk it out. He was all too right.
BBC News reported this week that the ruling military council has vowed to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June. "However," it goes on, "the council had earlier issued a declaration granting itself sweeping powers over legislation and the introduction of a new constitution. Opposition groups condemned the declaration as a 'coup.' ... It also strips the president of any authority over the army. The SCAF have even guaranteed themselves jobs for life."
Cairo was quiet after the weekend's elections, and why not? There was not much to celebrate, and people were suddenly too afraid to protest. As a nation of 84 million, they seemed to be thinking things through. And they had plenty to think about.
One of the great mainstays of Egypt's economy, tourism, had enriched 30 percent of the people; now it is almost down to nothing. Why should Estonians and Frenchmen and Americans and Russians go to a country that at any moment could eat itself alive?
The modernization of the economy -- attracting foreign investment to use the talents of the tens of thousands of young people leaving Egyptian universities every year with nothing to do, and which started with Mubarak's sons -- was dead.
Moreover, Egypt -- Great Egypt, with its Pyramids, its Luxor, its flowing Nile, its Abu Simbel and its Aswan -- was off the world's map. Revolutionaries never have the simplest conception that this is what happens when they start throwing paving stones. If a revolution "works" quickly, it can bring in people quickly and bring in cash; but few work that fast. Most take years to work out.
Egypt? Morsi will be proclaimed president, but without any power. Many will pretend. But others will continue plotting, in the shadowy corners of the elegant Mahdi Club, and the City of the Dead where the poor congregate, and in the coffee houses where the intellectuals smoke water pipes.