CAIRO — On the eve of a presidential election and two weeks before they are supposed to hand over authority, the military generals who were the power behind Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule are more entrenched in control than anyone in Egypt had ever intended. That shows no sign of changing.
They are poised to have a president who will bend to their will, with no parliament or constitution to put checks on them for the near future. They are also in a position to mold the new constitution to their own purposes.
How did Egypt get to this point, after a revolution intended to sweep out Mubarak's old order and bring democracy? A ruling Thursday by judges he had appointed dissolved the freely elected, Islamist-dominated parliament and sealed the military's leading role. But it was only the latest step in a path Egypt was put on soon after Mubarak was removed by his military brethren on Feb. 11, 2011, in the face of 18 days of pro-democracy protests.
For 16 tortured months, three factors have shaped that course:
The military firmly controlled the transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political force, tried to ride that transition to win power, but overreached.
And the young leftist and secular revolutionaries who launched the revolt were in too much disarray to bring their dreams to fruition.
The international scene also played a significant role: Saudi Arabia and the United States worried deeply about instability and saw in the generals someone they could or had to trust.
There was a brief glimmer of a possibly different route right after Mubarak fell and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Mubarak's defense minister, stepped in to rule. The council promised to hold elections for a parliament that would oversee the writing of a constitution, then presidential elections.
The leftist and secular revolutionaries, particularly reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei, argued that elections supervised by the military would be a farce and any constitution would be tainted. Instead, they proposed a civilian leadership grouping the "revolutionary powers" immediately start to rule and oversee the constitution.
Divided and politically inexperienced, they were resoundingly overruled. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — who had joined the revolt against Mubarak — broke with the revolutionaries and backed the military-run transition. They had no time for worries over military rule or talk of a revolutionary government, keeping a laser-like focus on elections in which they were confident of vaulting to power on a strong popular base.
Now the revolutionaries are saying: We told you so.
"A lot of time and effort went into campaigning for the presidential and parliamentary elections. They proved to be nothing, a scam," said activist Lobna Darwish. "It proved to be a distraction from working on direct street action, organizing people on the neighborhood and street level" to reach the revolution's goals and remove the military.
As a poster circulating on activists' social networking sites puts it: "The revolution asked for bread, freedom and social justice. They gave us troops, police and military police."
Gone is the parliament, the Brotherhood's main gain in the past year. Mubarak regime veteran Ahmed Shafiq, seen as the military's favorite, is competing in the presidential runoff election on Saturday and Sunday against the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi. With no constitution, the powers of a new president will be up to the military to determine even after it "steps down" as promised by June 30. The generals have taken over legislative powers, and they can pick the members of the body that will write the constitution.
A turning point was a referendum in March 2011 in which the public overwhelmingly approved the military's plan for the transition. The Islamists strongly backed the plan, even proclaiming a "yes" vote to be required by God. The public trusted the military, was enamored at the promise of free elections and saw the revolutionaries' alternative as vague. The plan passed with 70 percent of the vote.
From then on, the military pointed to that referendum as proof of legitimacy for whatever it did.
While the generals portrayed themselves as the protectors of the revolution, their control meant there was no move to dismantle the system that Egyptians had risen up against.
Most commanders of the feared security forces and intelligence agencies remained. Regime cronies kept their hold on state TV and newspapers. Mubarak-appointed judges and prosecutors made only superficial efforts to investigate or prosecute members of the regime, leaving the vast legacy of corruption and political skullduggery intact.
Only a handful of low-level police officers were convicted in any of the deaths of 900 protesters in the uprising. Mubarak and his interior minister have been sentenced to life imprisonment for failing to stop those deaths, but not of ordering them. With a largely shoddy prosecution case, other security bosses were acquitted, and Mubarak and his sons were cleared of corruption charges.
The generals showed they could resort to even more brutal tactics than Mubarak. Troops cracked down on an early protest of military rule in Tahrir Square, detaining and torturing activists and carrying out humiliating "virginity tests" on female demonstrators in the nearby Egyptian Museum.Comment on this story
Further crackdowns by security forces left more than 100 dead, and more than 12,000 went before military trials.
State TV, firmly in the generals' hands, depicted revolutionaries as troublemakers or worse — agents paid by foreign powers to spread chaos.
That fueled resentment of the activists among some in the public, frustrated with the instability and an economy sliding downhill fast.
Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood repeated the same accusations against protesters — the starkest sign of their accommodation with the military for most of the past year.