The results of first-round presidential voting last week reveal the striking diversity - not to say cacophony - of Egyptian politics.

With very few votes left to count, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi unofficially led with 24.9 per cent. Ahmed Shafiq, prime minister under Hosni Mubarak and the candidate of the ancient regime establishment, also appears to have reached the run-off, with 24.5 per cent (results, though widely shared in the media, will not be made official until later this week). Among also-rans, secular leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi scored 21.1 per cent, moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh 17.8 per cent, and former Arab League secretary Amr Moussa 11.3 per cent. This was democracy in action, but it has not pleased everyone.

Many of the youthful secularists who sparked and fuelled the Tahrir Square revolution have expressed dismay at the result; the new president will be from the Brotherhood or else a remnant of the bad old days. Observers inside and outside Egypt are muttering about polarisation.

But in fact, the weeks until the run-off vote on June 16 and 17 promise to be a period of intense political horse-trading, in which the loose alliance of secular liberal democratic elements has a precious pivotal position. If they use it wisely, they can greatly influence the way Egypt is governed, through the new president's six-year term and beyond.

The two remaining candidates now must win votes from those who preferred others. Together or separately, supporters of those candidates can now auction their backing to the highest bidder.

Mr Shafiq may well be amenable now to making a clear public commitment about how he would oversee and deal with the military, for example. Mr Morsi can be asked to tie himself to moderate policies on matters of religion's role in government. And both men should be asked to lock themselves into assurances about Egypt's new constitution, which is yet to be written. How this document apportions power among the president, legislature, judiciary and military is the vital question, and the outlines of the answer should be reached before, not after, June 17.

After 16 months of ferment, Egypt is unlikely to slip into any new dictatorship. The era of popular sovereignty - the "spirit of Tahrir" - will not fade away. The challenge, for every faction and leader in public life, is to accept that compromise is the essence of democracy. Egypt's urgent economic problems demand true power-sharing, and political horse-trading now can establish a healthy template for the country's future. –The National Editorial