As Aboul Fotouh and other candidates jockey for position and political parties gear up for historic parliamentary elections, the secretive military that has been the power behind the Egyptian throne since the 1950s remains firmly in control. By its recent actions, the country's military junta – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – has shown it is seeking to insulate itself from political change. It has jailed journalists and bloggers, shot and killed protesters – including 17 Coptic Christians last month who were complaining about unfair treatment by the state – and used secret trials against civilians. It has grabbed the megaphone of state media to darkly warn of "foreign hands" in Egyptian affairs and repeatedly revised Egypt's transition plan and the military's role in it.
This, of course, is how the military has behaved in Egypt stretching back to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser a half century ago. But now, with the first round of elections looming on Nov. 28, questions about the military's true intentions, the popularity of Islam, whether democracy can actually take root in Egypt, are poised to be answered. And those answers will reverberate well beyond Cairo and the dusty streets of Minya al-Qamh.
The Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, which passed its first post-dictator test with fairly clean elections in October. But Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, the ideological home for both Arab nationalism and modern Islamist political movements, remains the ultimate trophy for democracy proponents in the region.
A triumphant end to Egypt's revolution could show what's possible for other restive countries across the Middle East. If Egypt creates a government accountable to its people, it will likely embolden those standing up to autocrats like Syria's Bashar al-Assad or Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. If it fails – if the military manages to maintain control of vast portions of Egyptian life – then the Syrias, the Bahrains, the Jordans, and other regimes will find it easier to preserve their old ways of doing things.