The prevalent view that this week's presidential election is Egypt's first experiment with the ballot box is only partly true. Egyptians of a certain age knew parliamentary life and the competition of political parties. This was during the liberal interlude between 1923, when the country became independent from British rule, and 1952.
In that year a cabal of young military officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser upended the old order, abolished the monarchy—and delivered Egypt into six decades of authoritarianism.
The new men in charge disdained parliaments and political parties and banished the resident foreigners—Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews—who had been the driving force in the nation's economic life. They sequestered property, and they vowed to make Egypt a dominant military power. In the process, they broke their burdened country, thwarting its bid for modernity. "The Revolution has stolen the property of a few and the liberty of all," said a character in "Miramar," a work of fiction by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz that was published on the eve of the his country's Six-Day War with Israel in 1967. Hosni Mubarak was the last centurion of that revolution.
Now two presidential candidates will face one another in a runoff scheduled for mid-June. Mohammed Morsi is an American-educated engineer and the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had early on indicated it would not contest the presidential election. By unofficial tallies, he came in first.
His runoff opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, is a former commander of the Air Force and Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister. He ran on a platform of law and order, presented himself as a bulwark against the "forces of darkness"—the Islamists. And so it will be the Brotherhood against the feloul, the remnants of the old regime.
It is not a coincidence that this runoff is between a member of the old guard, the military-bureaucratic class, and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is rather very symbolic of Egypt today. The larger field of a dozen contenders included all the currents of the country's political life. But to simplify, among the top five vote-getters were two Islamists and three secularists.
Amr Moussa was a diplomat with a long record as foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League. He had made a career of bashing Israel, but he could not sell the public on his separation from the Mubarak regime that he had served as foreign minister for years. Mr. Moussa trumpeted his secularism. But he was outflanked by Mr. Shafiq, who was unyielding in his assault on the forces of political Islam.
Rounding out the secularists was Hamdeen Sabahy, a devotee of the late Nasser, who hearkens back to the 1960s and its preference for the public sector. The labor unions and the working class in the urban world of Alexandria came out for Mr. Sabahy, so deep runs the nostalgia for Nasserism. But he was always a long shot.
Arrayed against Mohammed Morsi was Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a lapsed member of the Muslim Brotherhood with a decidedly liberal message about Islam's "inclusiveness." But Mr. Foutouh could not make the sale to Islamist voters. Among believers, the advantages of membership in the Brotherhood were too powerful for him to overcome.
For the Brotherhood, this election is the culmination of a dream of eight decades. Formed in 1928, it has alternated between the politics of the ballot and the resort to violence. Its founder, a plotter named Hassan al-Banna, said that the organization rested on the Quran and the gun.
The Brotherhood was dismantled and driven underground in 1954, and brutalized by the Nasser regime, but it never went away. And with Mubarak gone, it was ready: It has money and numbers, and a sense of political cunning bequeathed it by its founder, who in his time was a chameleon of supreme pragmatism and concealment. And so the Brotherhood was part of Tahrir Square—those magical 18 days that toppled Mubarak—and yet it wasn't. It played cat-and-mouse with the armed forces and signaled its unease with the politics of mass protest.
Representing the feloul is Ahmed Shafiq. His was the appeal of the military uniform, and the promise to the Copts that his presidency was a safe alternative to the rule of the Islamists.
An early reading of the votes shows Mr. Shafiq doing well among rural voters. Not for them was the romance with Tahrir Square. For all the talk of an Egypt obedient to its rulers, submissive under an eternal sky, the period since Mubarak's fall has witnessed a massive breakdown in public order. True, Mubarak had stepped aside unlamented, but the lawlessness and the rise in unemployment has offered him—and his remnants—a measure of rehabilitation.
This is a faded, burdened country that has known many false dawns. Its saving grace at so critical a time is innate skepticism of grand claims and those who make them.
Egypt is the top importer of wheat, and food and bread riots are the horror of its rulers. Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt has run down two-thirds of its foreign currency reserves, unemployment has soared, and tourism has collapsed. A loan of $3.2 billion on offer by the International Monetary Fund, at nominal interest, is yet to be accepted, so sanctified is the principle of economic independence.
Since no would-be ruler today has a magic wand for the country's maladies, it is perhaps no wonder that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been so eager to cede power to a civilian government. The officer corps will protect its economic and security prerogatives—it will keep for itself the domain of security and defense, dealings with Israel and the U.S. military—but it is keen to be relieved of the burden, and the responsibility, of the economy.
In the vision of the Islamists, Egypt would be ruled by Shariah law and the secularists reined in. This cannot be sustained on Egyptian soil. Theocracies like Iran, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, rest on oil wealth, on the margin such wealth allows the rulers to mold the society. In Egypt, so dependent on foreign aid, remittances, the revenues of tourism and the kindness of strangers, a religious utopia would be undone.
Today Egypt's social and political balance has ruptured, and the population explosion—to 80 million from 18 million in 1952—has damaged its old stability. And yet the stereotype of a (largely) cautious country on the banks of the Nile that dreads grand causes is still true.
This is not a people known for violent jihads. Egypt has been spared the kind of bloodletting that visited Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in recent decades. May it be so for years to come. This election may have had its flaws, a constitution is yet to be drafted, but the old civility still holds.
A new republic has emerged, born in Tahrir Square. Two contenders for the presidency of the republic are not creatures of that square. But this is not the first time that the fruits of a revolution were picked by those who were strangers to its exertions.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His newest book, "The Syrian Rebellion," will be released by Hoover Institution Press at the end of this month.