Even before the Egyptian army's latest power grab, optimism about the Arab uprisings had reached a low ebb. For many the "Arab spring" has long since turned into an Arab winter, as savage repression and counter-revolution crushed, hijacked or diverted popular pressure for democratic rights and social justice.
Foreign intervention left Libya in chaos, Syria is engulfed in sectarian war, Yemen has been fobbed off with cosmetic change while the United States escalates drone attacks and protest continues to be brutally put down from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
After it ditched the dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's military junta carried on jailing and torturing thousands to stay in power. Only Tunisia seemed permitted to carry out a democratic transition. No wonder MI5 yesterday seized on the gloom to drum up business, warning that al-Qaida's influence was growing in a "permissive" new Arab environment.
To some, the election of an Islamist president from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood confirms their worst fears. Israel's best-selling paper Yediot Aharonot headlined its report of Mohammed Morsi's victory: "Darkness in Egypt". In reality, any free election in Egypt (and most other Arab countries) in recent years would have elected an Islamist president; and when the alternative was a former Mubarak prime minister – who left the country yesterday apparently to escape corruption investigations – any other result would have been a travesty.
Far more dangerous is that the military regime has dissolved parliament and voted itself sweeping powers that risk turning the elected president into a toothless figurehead, as the generals protect their vast economic interests and maintain a veto on defence, security, the state budget and constitutional change.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants to emulate Turkey's model of democratic Islamism. But Egypt's generals clearly prefer the older Turkish practice of "deep state" control behind a parliamentary facade – where elected politicians take the blame for the economy and the army looks after the rest.
If that were to stand, it would be the death knell for democratic change in Egypt and the wider Middle East, of which Egypt is the pivot. It would also destroy the credibility of the Brotherhood, which has a record of ineffective behind-the-scenes deals with the military. Its opponents are now accusing it of falling into the same trap again, while its supporters insist the movement is in no mood for compromise.
The only effective way forward for the new president is to mobilize his own base along with anti-regime secular and progressive forces (including many of the 22% who backed the left-leaning nationalist Hamdeen Sabahy for president) to face down the military on the core democratic issues. Mohamed Morsi won the election this month precisely because he stood up to the military council as a national leader. That is what he has to do again – and yesterday's announcement that his two vice-presidents will be a Christian and a woman seem to show the former Mubarak regime prisoner has grasped that.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long been portrayed as an extremist throwback. It is in reality an authentic mass movement, with broad social support and conservative and more progressive trends within it. Its leaders are mostly middle-class professionals, but its activists are often treated with snobbish disdain by liberal elites – as evidenced by contemptuous reactions on the web to the appearance of Morsi's wife, Naglaa Ali.
The protection and advance of women's and other civil rights will be essential. But there is a clear danger in Egypt and elsewhere that the "revolutionary camp" could be diverted into US-style culture wars about religion and secularism, at the expense of the battle for social and economic justice and national independence that will make the greatest difference to most Egyptians.
About 40% of the population is living on less than two dollars a day, and the IMF is hovering in the wings with the kind of structural adjustment reforms that can only make things worse for those at the sharp end. Those include privatizations the Brotherhood has pledged to continue – and won it plaudits from US officials for saying "all the right things on the economic side", despite its social programs. But if the Brotherhood fails to deliver to its supporters, it will split or fall.
The western powers are more concerned about the Islamists' foreign policy and their attitude to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, guaranteed by the military and a $1.3bn US annual subvention. The Brotherhood was backed by the US against Nasser in the past and the CIA is currently channeling weapons to the Syrian opposition, of which the local Brotherhood is a major component.
No doubt Washington hopes to see the emergence of a "moderate" pro-western Islamism as basis for the more stable regime in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world – and Morsi has said he will maintain the "strategic partnership" with the US.
But attachment to the Palestinian cause and hostility to the west's role in the region is deep in Egyptian society – and among Muslim Brotherhood supporters in particular. Morsi is anxious to reassure the west that there will be no major shifts in foreign policy, if and when he gets control of it. But unless, say, the blockade of Gaza is lifted soon, the Brotherhood could start to look like an Islamic face on the old order and lose the confidence of its base. Genuine democratization in the Middle East is bound to lead to greater independence.
In the meantime, the first free election of an Egyptian president is likely to give renewed impetus to protest movements for democratic change across the region. The US is said to be particularly concerned about the autocratic pro-western Jordanian regime. Last week, the opposition-dominated parliament was dissolved in Kuwait; protests and strikes have led to arrests and trials in Oman.
The spread of revolt is essential if real change is to continue in the Arab world. The Saudi and other western-backed Gulf dictatorships have been central to the drive to suppress, derail or poison the uprisings of the past 18 months – the fulcrum of the regional counter-revolution. Only when they reach the heartlands of autocracy will the Arab revolution be secure.