Egypt's historic presidential election will not settle the future of the country in one fell swoop, but it traces the contours of a new regime in which the key political actors may ultimately be forced to compromise with one another.
Though unofficial results, released by the state-run Al-Ahram news website, show Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi eking out a narrow victory, in a sense it doesn't matter whether he wins or loses to Ahmed Shafiq, who served as prime minister in former dictator Hosni Mubarak's final hours. After 15 months, neither the military nor the Muslim Brotherhood has the wherewithal to grind the other out of existence.
The two sides have different interests, but neither is prepared to shed rivers of blood in a futile attempt to dominate a highly fractured country. And while the stalemate is in many ways uncomfortable, it shows that the only way to bridge the fissures between factions is to implement a pluralistic democratic system based on liberal democratic principles.
Historic as this election is, only half of the registered voters went to the polls, and their votes demonstrate that Egypt has no true majority party. Morsi drew support from various Islamist factions and secularists who refused to vote for the old order, while Shafiq capitalized on secularists and people so fed up with skyrocketing street crime that they were willing to endorse a candidate tainted by Mubarak. However prominent the Islamists are, they are not a majority.
On Sunday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a constitutional declaration saying it will keep legislative powers until a new constitution is drafted and a new parliament is elected. This might take a few more months. It also reserved the right to intervene in the event of developments that they perceive endanger the goals of the revolution.
Egypt is now entering a phase that resembles the "Turkish Scenario" of the mid-1980s, in which the military claimed the right to interfere in domestic politics whenever they determined that the system was in danger.
But the military also recognizes that without Mubarak's intelligence apparatus and interior ministry, it simply can't keep a lid on the country. As a result, it is transferring partial power to a civilian government and to a president who will have some executive powers but be obligated to seek military approval for his decisions until a new constitution is adopted.
The transition has had many flaws, and there are surely more to come. Yet for the first time in 60 years, the military has become a political actor in Egypt rather than the political actor. The generals and the political parties will simply have to find ways to compromise, or they will end up with no country to fight over.
And despite all of the recent setbacks, the new president will have an opportunity to salvage the transition to democracy. He can extend an olive branch to constituencies he didn't win this time around but whose support he will need to take Egypt into the future.
The election is neither a big step forward nor a big step backward for Egypt. It is but one step in a process. Yet with each day that passes without major violence, it becomes harder to revert to a military regime, and harder to descend into a new Islamist autocracy.
Isn't that progress?