So here we are a year and a half after the start of the protests of Tahrir Square in Cairo, which Tom Friedman and the rest of the Arab Springers had promised would give birth to a New Middle East, where democracy and liberal values would reign from here to eternity, and Arabs and Muslims everywhere would turn out to be “just like us.”

Instead, we spent the month of June wondering whether Egypt would be ruled in the coming years by a bunch of Muslim fundamentalists who hope to impose sharia on the country and to turn the members of the Christian minority and Egyptian women into second-class citizens, or by the members of the old junta and the Mukhabarat (the security services).

Hence, after the expectations about the Facebook Revolution, led by all those young and hip and internet-savvy Egyptians, were raised to the stratosphere—with promises to extend human rights, equal rights, women’s rights, religious rights—the citizens of the largest Arab country faced a choice between life under the 84-year-old and anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the group of military officers that has been controlling Egypt since 1952, represented now by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  These reactionary and antiliberal political forces chose as their respective presidential candidates two 60-year-old and very uncool guys who probably don’t even know how to send e-mails.  Old wines in old skins.  The Brotherhood won.

Beyond Egypt, much of the so-called old order in the Arab Middle East is indeed being challenged.  But the fall of Arab nationalist rulers has not led to the rise of secular, liberal, and social-democratic members of the Arab opposition.

Instead, what is replacing the old nation-state system in the Arab World is the premodern, if not atavistic politics of sectarian and tribal warfare, which is engulfing post-Qaddafi Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, not to mention Iraq, in bloody civil wars.  The corrupt secular military dictators—Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria—are being replaced by corrupt Islamic political figures—Shi’ites in Iraq (allied with theocratic Iran) and Sunnis in Syria (allied with theocratic Saudi Arabia), who will deny women rights and persecute Christians, although the “moderate” Islamists who have come to power in Tunisia have pledged not to stone homosexuals or to force women to wear veils.

Yes, I know.  Even the most ardent globalist cautioned that we shouldn’t expect to see Jeffersonian democracy rising along the Nile.  Nonetheless, Friedmanism assumed that what we were seeing on Al Jazeera, that beacon of press freedom (owned by Qatar’s royals) was nothing less than a rerun of the so-called Revolutions of 1989 that led to the collapse of the communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany and created the conditions for the downfall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The problem with this historical analogy has to do with, well, history.  Poland, Hungary, the Czechs, and the Slovaks were returning to their roots in European civilization, and their societies were well grounded in Western political traditions of self-government and the free market that the communist regimes had tried to destroy.  In the case of the Middle East, the Arabs are returning to their Islamic roots and the world of religious sects, tribes, and clans, and see in free elections not a process of political and economic liberalization but a form of identity politics, a way to empower their people and protect them against the “other.”

There is not much that the United States or other outside powers can do to affect the outcome of the long struggle that is going to take place in the Middle East in the coming years.  Egypt, however, is in a better position than other countries to manage this transformation.

Unlike Syria and Iraq, artificial entities that were created by the European colonial powers, Egypt has a strong sense of national identity that could actually encourage the Muslim “brothers” and the generals to reach some sort of a political deal to divide power between them, a military regime with Islamic characters.  Sorry for recycling the clichés, but if this is spring, I wonder how winter will feel.