Revolutions happen in a dramatic rush, history tells us, but they settle slowly and unpredictably. The revolution that shook Egypt in the spring of 2011 is following this pattern. Its outcome is now a source of unease and concern throughout the Arab world and the West.
Egypt has been riven by violent protests and bloody political clashes ever since President Mohamed Morsi granted himself sweeping, unchecked powers through a controversial Nov. 22 decree. That power grab allowed him to legislate without any judicial oversight. Despite furious secular opposition, but backed by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi immediately rushed through a referendum on a flawed draft constitution, now set for Saturday.
The proposed constitution would weaken even the currently feeble protections for religious minorities, the press and women. Although it wouldn't impose sharia, Islamic law, it is full of religious references on the protection of public morals that could be open to Islamist interpretation.
Egypt is the pre-eminent and largest Arab state. It is key to the evolution of President Barack Obama's foreign policy in the altered political landscape of the Middle East. Its precarious peace treaty with Israel is at stake in its new government, whose form would be determined by the new constitution.
That's why this stumbling turn toward democracy is under such intense watch. How it's resolved may determine whether Egypt morphs into an authoritarian Islamist republic -- exchanging one form of autocracy for another -- or manages to shape its new government into the kind of open democracy approximating those in the West, as its liberal reformers intended in heady days of the Arab Spring.
At this point, the outcome of the crisis is at best uncertain. The progressive euphoria that animated young urban rebels after the demise of Hosni Mubarak's regime in the Arab Spring has slowly soured into disillusion. Urban-based liberal secular political parties, utterly disorganized and unable to find common ground, were defeated in democratic elections this spring by much better organized Islamist parties that gained ground and sympathy in Egypt's vast rural provinces. Morsi, once a leader in the Brotherhood, has made it clear that he is committed to a religiously observant form of government.
If there are any checks at all on the possible power of a religious autocracy in Egypt, it may well come from its army. Egypt's main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, was expected to attend Wednesday's unity talks called by the army to help end the political crisis. Impasses between the government and its furious opposition could be resolved by the army, which gets special status in the draft constitution: The president can't dictate to the military, while parliament has no oversight on its budget.
The overriding problem for secular, liberal reformers in Egypt is that the only entities with strong institutional powers are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Together, despite their disagreements, they will control the rules of the game to suit their aims. The United States, a powerful player in the internal politics of Egypt under the Mubarak regime, is now a marginal and somewhat distrusted factor. The only leverage Washington retains is the $2 billion in annual economic and military aid it continues to grant Egypt, in the hopes its new government will continue to honor its peace treaty with Israel. But that, too, could change quickly, with the Muslim Brotherhood having made it clear it wants to abrogate the treaty and Morsi having granted formal recognition to Hamas.
In his "Devil's Dictionary," the satirist Ambrose Bierce defined revolution as "an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment." Today, Egyptians can only hope that their own revolution -- begun with such great hopes for a pluralist civil society endowed with rights for all -- doesn't become a case in point.
Adrian Peracchio, a former foreign correspondent and editorial writer for Newsday, is a lecturer at LIU Post's Hutton House Lectures program.