If there were any doubt that Egypt's fragile transition to democracy is being undermined by powerful forces bent on re-establishing the authoritarian rule of former military strongman Hosni Mubarak before his ouster in 2011, two incidents last week show the disturbing direction in which events there are drifting.
On Monday, a court in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya handed down death sentences to 529 defendants accused of killing a policeman last year. The charges were obviously fabricated to target Muslim Brotherhood supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by a military coup last year, as well as secular opponents of the regime and intellectuals.
Two days later, the country's current military strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, announced he would run for the presidency in elections scheduled this spring. El-Sissi, who became military chief of staff after the coup, was a relatively little-known figure until Morsi appointed him the defence minister in Egypt's first democratically elected government.
The juxtaposition of these two events is jarring not only because of what it says about Egypt's deeply divided political landscape but also for what it says about the absence of an independent judiciary and legal institutions without which no democratic government based on the rule of law can survive.
El-Sissi is expected to prevail easily over a weak and divided opposition in the coming elections. But if Egyptians hoped the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Morsi would advance the nation toward something more like a western-style democracy, they are likely to be disappointed.
Already el-Sissi's critics are claiming his supporters in the military plan to rig the ballot boxes to assure his victory. Moreover, he has aligned himself with the same powerful business and financial interests that provided the backbone of Mubarak's support during his brutal 40-year dictatorship.
El-Sissi still enjoys broad popular support among Egyptians, especially in the rural areas, where a majority of its 90 million people still live. After nearly three years of political instability and violent upheaval, many people believe he is the only leader who can repair the country's sagging economy, whose decline was accelerated by the collapse of the tourism industry following Mubarak's ouster.
In the most hopeful scenarios, el-Sissi would build on that support to seek some sort of reconciliation with the Brotherhood, which is now the target of a relentless military crackdown, and draw it back into the political process and eventually, perhaps, even into the government. Those who espouse such views think el-Sissi, despite his lack of experience in electoral politics, could actually become a unifying figure on Egypt's path toward a more open and democratic political system in which conflicts are settled at the polls and through the courts rather than at the point of a gun.
On the other hand, a reversion to authoritarian rule by the military is likely only to accelerate Egypt's slide into the political and economic chaos that has beset the country ever since the popular uprisings known as Arab Spring swept through the region in 2011. That is also the greatest danger confronting el-Sissi if he can't revive the economy and his supporters begin to doubt his ability to make life better for ordinary Egyptians.
Almost nothing is known about el-Sissi's ideas regarding how to do that, though he appears to have surrounded himself with technocrats from the Mubarak era and the military who presumably could help him stabilize the country's finances, reform its political institutions and get the economy back on track. The question is whether he has any interest or willingness to even attempt the kinds of changes that would require.
Egyptians find themselves today at a crossroads where they must choose either to continue down the road they set out to follow when they threw off military rule three years ago and embarked on a path toward a freer, more open society, or retreat back into the economic stagnation and political corruption that characterized the Mubarak era. One way or the other, el-Sissi seems destined to play an oversized role in whichever scenario ultimately plays out.