Clarification appended: June 30, 2012
The junta was magnanimous and did not begrudge its old enemies their joy. One day after the Muslim Brotherhood set off fireworks over Tahrir Square to celebrate its historic presidential victory, Major General Mohamed Said el-Assar, one of the 19 members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has officially ruled Egypt for 16 months (apart from tacitly commanding the nation since 1952), sounded proud, not defeated. "Now we have a new elected President, so that is a great accomplishment for SCAF," the general enthused in an exclusive interview with TIME, even though the Islamists' candidate, Mohamed Morsy, had beaten Ahmed Shafik, a retired air-force commander and former member of SCAF, by 2% of the vote. "So we would like to hand over power and for everything to be O.K." Still, he made sure the military got credit: "We have done the best we can for our country. We saved the revolution."
But which revolution is that? Most of the world is familiar with Egypt's people-powered uprising, partially fostered by Twitter and Facebook but mostly driven by the frenetic protests of a secular-led youth movement that took to the streets to topple the 30-year-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Then there was the dramatic political surge of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, which used its immense person-to-person social network to dominate the messy democratic space opened by Mubarak's fall. It won the bulk of seats in parliament and seemed to augur apocalypse for Egypt's relatively secular constitution. The generals, however, appear to have trumped both developments with an effort that began so modestly that it seems more palace coup than upheaval: the imperial guard decided Mubarak the emperor had to go in order to preserve its own prerogatives, including control of up to a third of Egypt's economy.
After Morsy's victory was certified, the generals exuded graciousness. But it took a while. The Supreme Presidential Election Commission waited a week from the end of the vote to declare a winner, and the delay gave rise to conspiracy theories. But the official developments contained ominous signs that the junta was entrenching itself in power in the most populous country to be swept up in the Arab Spring. First, just before the Morsy-Shafik runoff, a constitutional court dissolved the legislature because it deemed the parliamentary election law unconstitutional. Then, just as the polls closed, SCAF decreed a constriction of the powers of the presidency. Morsy will have no real control over the budget and no decisive role in foreign policy, defense or national-security matters. He won't even have the symbolic status of commander in chief of the armed forces. By fiat, the junta has kept all those functions for itself. The military claims it is all part of ensuring Egypt's future. As General Mohamed Elkeshky, Cairo's military attach in Washington, told TIME, "We want to leave Egypt in safe hands." Asked if he feared that the Islamists might compromise Egypt's national security, el-Assar simply said, "We have taken all measures in order to protect the country from these early stages of democracy in order not to face a crisis or problems like war or anything at this point."