As I write, both the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Muhammed Morsi (pictured) and old regime candidate Ahmed Shafiq are claiming victory in Egypt's presidential election. While it seems more likely that Morsi has won, expect recounts, challenges and other shenanigans before we get a final result.

Regardless of who wins, the presidential election has been overshadowed by what many observers have described as a coup by the country's real centre of power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

In the last week, Egypt's Constitutional Court has dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, military police and intelligence officials have been given wider powers of civilian arrest and the SCAF has issued new amendments to last year's constitutional declaration, giving them much strong executive, legislative, coercive and even constitution writing powers.

One could argue that this is not really a coup because no-one other than the SCAF had any real power since Mubarak was overthrown. It certainly means, however, that if Morsi really has won the election, his presidency is likely to be short of power, short-tempered and possibly even short-lived.

Some (both inside and outside Egypt) who are fearful of the Brotherhood will be relieved that the SCAF and its old regime allies have taken these steps. As I have argued before, the Brotherhood's decision to run for the presidency after their parliamentary victory was bad for Egypt's democratic transition. After decades of authoritarian rule, it was always going to be dangerous for any player to have such a strong hold over key elected institutions, especially a movement like the Brotherhood that raises people's fears and suspicions, some exaggerated but some quite justified.

Nevertheless, these SCAF/old regime moves to curtail Egypt's democratic transition should not be celebrated. Egypt has lost the chance of a relatively short, orderly and reasonably (although clearly not entirely) non-violent transition towards a more democratic system. (Incidentally, Tunisia seems to be managing its transition a lot better).  

After Mubarak was overthrown, it should have been possible to construct a transition process that sought consensus across the political spectrum and reassured various political players that their core interests would not be immediately threatened by a new political system while consolidating and broadening the political space opened by the fall of Mubarak. Instead, almost all the political players over-reached and under-performed. 

Young revolutionaries, poorly organised and suspicious of everyone, wanted to put a civilian leash on the military right away, as if there weren't at least a dozen other things they could have focused on to consolidate the democratic opportunity they had created through their own blood and toil. 

The Brotherhood saw its political chance and decided to go for the maximum, rather than showing some restraint out of consideration for the genuine fears their political ascent had created. Meanwhile, some liberals and parts of the Coptic Christian minority once again sought refuge in the belief that a secular dictatorship is at least better than a religious one, underlining yet again that Islamists are not the only potential threats to democracy in the Middle East. 

None of this absolves the SCAF of the growing list of anti-democratic moves it has made, especially in the last week. There is now a real danger that things will take a more violent turn if various pro-revolutionary forces decide to take on the military in the streets.  

In this regard, while the SCAF seems confident that it has the measure of the revolutionary youth, should it come to more sticks and stones, the key will be what the Brotherhood does. For the most part it has avoided confrontation with the military; in one case last November, it abandoned protests it had launched after only 24 hours, leaving the young revolutionaries that had followed it onto the streets to the not-so-tender mercies of the security forces. 

Even though the Brotherhood is making some threatening noises about what it will do if Morsi is not allowed to assume the presidency, its first instinct will be to strike some kind of deal with the SCAF. The Brotherhood still fears it would lose any violent confrontation. The only thing that might change this calculation would be the Brotherhood's belief that the SCAF really is lining the movement up for a major crackdown. Nevertheless, even if a Brotherhood and SCAF deal avoids greater violence, it will also continue the process of squeezing the younger and more independent revolutionary forces out of the political equation. How they will react remains an interesting question.

The more hopeful analysis is that, notwithstanding these setback, Egypt will now be in for a long period of political turmoil and tug of war between pro- and anti-democratic forces, where violence is sporadic but contained, similar to what happened in Turkey over decades before that country finally emerged a much stronger democracy. Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's sombre but ultimately hopeful piece in the FT is a great articulation of this view. 

There certainly seems something to the view that the release of new political energy and the raising of expectations over the last 17 months means there is simply no going back to the Mubarak days, no matter how much the old regime might want it.

Still, at this stage, it is hard not to be pessimistic. In recent years, the media has made a cliché of Arabs holding up purple ink-stained fingers as a sign of them just having voted in a free election. After the last week, the purple on the fingers of Egyptian voters seems to more aptly signify the door being slammed on their democratic aspirations.

Photo by Flickr user AsianMedia