Egyptian history plays tricks with its interpreters. This ancient society is known for the stability given it by the Nile, a well-mannered and orderly river, and by a pharaonic culture where the rulers were deities. But this timeless image is largely false. Egypt's peasant society has been prone to violent upheavals. Order has often hung by a thread, as a proud people alternate between submission and rebellion.
We are now in the midst of one of these alternations. On Feb. 11, Egypt's last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, bent to the will of his people and relinquished power. What we are witnessing in Egypt today is not the consequence of democracy but rather a half-century of authoritarianism. The chaos and the lawlessness issue out of the lawlessness of the former regime. As crony capitalism had its way with the economy, the military elite, the officer corps, had to be given its share of the loot. Having turned away from war and military adventures abroad, they were rewarded with economic enterprises and privileges of their own—exclusive clubs, vacation homes, land grants, you name it.
That bargain came to an end in the closing days of January as the Egyptian people flooded Tahrir Square and called for Mubarak to step down. One of the officers who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Gen. Mukhtar Molla, later said that it was an epiphany that inspired the officers not to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square. "The army and the people are one hand" was the chant of those magical 18 days that upended Mubarak. It was a rebellion of a thousand discontents, a revolution of Facebook and Google types and Islamists alike.
Issam Sharaf, a decent technocrat who had cast his fate with the protesters, was made prime minister. But the generals behind the curtain had no intention of ceding power. In the months that followed, the country grew practically ungovernable.
Prime Minister Sharaf pleaded for time and patience but Egypt was living dangerously, running through its financial reserves at an alarming rate. Tourism, 10% of GDP, has ground to a halt. The Social Solidarity Ministry—the title alone conveys the workings of a welfare state—estimates that the country has wheat reserves of around six months, and cooking oil, sugar and rice supplies that can only see the country through another three months.
This is not the legacy of Tahrir Square but of the 1952 military coup and the subsequent authoritarianism that is just now beginning to unravel. The post-coup rulers, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, had chosen the path of least resistance. They secured obedience through a defective command economy riddled with cronyism. As that great son of Egypt, the late Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate in literature, once observed, the 1952 revolution had taken the property of the few and the liberty of all.
The way out of Egypt's impasse is a flawed electoral process. A staggered election that began on Monday is set to last until March 2012, and a new president is promised by June. Turnout was high on Monday, and despite expected fraud and intimidation many voters are hopeful that a post-military order will arise.
In the interim, 78-year-old Kamal el-Ganzouri (hand-picked by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi) is to lead the country as prime minister. Aged and uninspiring, Mr. Ganzouri held that same position under Mubarak in 1996-99. The Egyptian people did not rise up to bring the likes of him to power.
Revolutions always return to their moments—and places—of brilliance and clarity. This month the protesters returned to Tahrir Square, and in confrontations with the police, 40 people were killed and untold hundreds were wounded. The generational and cultural war in Egypt has not let up. The dreaded Ministry of Interior has not changed its ways. Bloggers and protesters and critics are still subject to arbitrary arrest, dissidents are sent before military courts. The army, meanwhile, has the luxury of a feigned neutrality—the grim work is done by the police.
There is also the fulul, the remnants of the National Democratic Party of Mubarak. They've been driven out of power but continue a rear-guard battle against the new order. They have money and goons aplenty to do their dirty work.
Three forces now contest the course, and the very future, of this country—the armed forces, a broad secular coalition of people who want a normal life and a civil polity, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was not the genesis of the revolution in Tahrir Square, but it was there, waiting in the wings to seize greater power. The Brotherhood has been sly of late. It seeks an alliance with the armed forces to the detriment of those who desire the graces of "normal" political life—the separation of religion and politics, the rule of law, national unity between Copts and Muslims.
The behavior of the Brotherhood is in keeping with its past; this has always been a party that mixed the cult of violence with rank opportunism. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was a chameleon who gave religious warrant to political deceit. He was struck down by an assassin in 1949, but he had shown the way.
Banna and his successors always pined for an alliance with the military. For a fleeting moment, in 1952, they thought they had struck a deal with the new junta. But the new man at the helm, Nasser, had no interest in that kind of accommodation. The Brotherhood would bide its time. It found running room under Sadat and Mubarak and is now poised for a new political bid.
To the mighty Egyptian officer corps the Brotherhood offers the promise of live and let live—the privileges and allotments of the armed forces would be left in tact and opaque, while the Brotherhood, for the first time in its 84-year history, comes to political power.
There is another arrow in the Brotherhood's quiver—the big, disarming message that it has come in from the wilderness, that the Obama administration has made its peace with the new power of political Islam, all the way from Turkey to Morocco.
This tumult on the banks of the Nile is the true test of this Arab Awakening, for Egypt remains the trend-setter in Arab politics. For three decades (1919-1952) the country knew a parliamentary life, political parties and the ballot box. It wasn't perfect that political order, but Egyptians are telling us that they are done with pharaohs and redeemers.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.