The first presidential election since last year’s revolution will be held this month. Will it lead to real democracy?

Who rules Egypt now?

The military does, in an uneasy rivalry with the country’s most powerful Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control when the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak was brought down in February 2011, after 18 dramatic days of public protest. Under the leadership of former Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the junta at first took several popular actions — repealing the repressive emergency laws of the Mubarak era, releasing political prisoners, and organizing last November’s parliamentary elections. But it has also tried thousands of protesters in military courts, failed to prosecute police who fired on protesters during the revolution, and shown a stubborn will to retain control.

What about the Muslim Brotherhood?

It is now the largest political party in parliament, thanks partly to the millions of dollars the military funneled to it ahead of the November elections. Analysts believe the military backed the Brotherhood as a bulwark against secularists, who were demanding a fully democratic system and civilian control over Egypt’s large and opaque military budget.

But relations between the military and the Brotherhood have deteriorated badly since the elections. Islamists have spearheaded new protests in recent weeks, voicing fears that the junta will not let any democratic force, including Islamists, exercise real authority. “The military might accept the Brotherhood as an ally within the new political space,” says political scientist Ashraf El Sherif of the American University in Cairo. “But it will not tolerate a Brother on top.”

Does the Brotherhood want a theocracy?

It says it does not. After dominating the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood promised to respect the rights of Coptic Christians, secularists, and women, and not to run a candidate for president. But a few months later, it reneged on that pledge and nominated the popular Khairat el-Shater, who said that introducing sharia law would be his “first and final” objective as president. The Brotherhood’s change of heart has been seen by some as an attempt to outflank the even more conservative Salafists, who took 25 percent of the seats in parliament on a fundamentalist platform calling for strict segregation of the sexes. A Salafist president would certainly pull Egypt toward theocracy. Under either the Brotherhood or the Salafists, Egypt would have a more overtly Islamic government than it did under Mubarak.

Will the election be free?

Not really. Last month the election commission — still controlled by Mubarak appointees — used technicalities to disqualify half the presidential candidates planning to run in the May 23–24 elections, including el-Shater and two others considered front-runners. The Brotherhood’s leadership is now backing its second-choice candidate, Mohammed Mursi, but he lacks el-Shater’s charisma. The Salafists last week threw their support behind a more moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, who broke away from the Brotherhood last year; he also has support among liberals and is likely to do well. But a split in the Islamist vote could boost the candidacy of Amr Moussa, a suave former foreign minister and ex-head of the Arab League, who draws some support from secularists but is also mistrusted as a feloul, or remnant, of the Mubarak regime. The top two finishers in this month’s first round will run off in mid-June; the winner is expected to take office on July 1, when the military council is to step down.

What will the military’s role be then?

That’s anybody’s guess. There’s no new constitution yet, and the military’s demand that one be in place before the election is unlikely to be fulfilled. The new parliament appointed a 100-member commission to write a constitution, but it stacked the commission with Islamists, prompting loud complaints from secularists, minorities, and women — the very people who helped lead the revolution. A court has disbanded the commission and ordered parliament to appoint a new one, but the delay means that Egypt could have a new president before anyone knows what his powers will be. As the various Islamist groups and the military conduct a prolonged power struggle, it looks as if there will be little voice for the secular youth and the women who led the revolution and hoped to create a new Egyptian society.

Why were the activists left behind?

Unlike the Islamist groups, secularists lacked the political infrastructure to field candidates and turn out voters in the November parliamentary elections. Women, in particular, have been sidelined. The parliamentary quota system for women in place under the Mubarak regime was abolished, resulting in a 508-seat legislature with just eight female members. Not surprisingly, the abuse of women that caused so much international outrage during the revolution has continued.

 In December, police ripped the clothes off one female protester. Footage of that attack prompted a massive women’s protest in Tahrir Square but no political consequences. Activists say that despite a democratic veneer, Egypt’s new government will retain oppressive control over its citizens. “We are definitely now living under a military coup,” said activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb. “And the whole world should know.”

US aid flows on

Under Mubarak, Egypt was one of the biggest recipients of US military aid, provided largely to reward and support the country’s nonbelligerent stance toward Israel.

That aid will continue despite growing discomfort in Egypt over the 1979 peace accord with Israel — and despite growing concerns about Cairo’s respect for human rights. Late last year, Congress voted to recommend restricting this year’s $1.3 billion of military aid, a demand some lawmakers renewed early this year when Egypt arrested 16 American pro-democracy workers. But in March, the State Department released the aid, saying that canceling existing defense contracts would cost $2 billion and jeopardize American jobs. Many in Congress were not pleased.

“It sets a precedent that America will not punish its aggressors,” said Rand Paul (R-Ky.), “but instead give them billions of our taxpayers’ dollars.”

–The Week’s Editorial