As Egyptians voted in the first round of their presidential election, there is anticipation that a new era of popularly elected government for the country is in the making.

But the odds are stacked against Egypt and, ironically, this is for the better.

Sixty years of authoritarian rule inaugurated in the July 1952 military coup headed by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser institutionalized the role of the military in Egypt, and it is not about to be dismantled. The military is deeply embedded in Egyptian society, controlling reputedly a third of the country’s economy. It is the dominant player holding the balance between liberals — vastly outnumbered in a traditional religious society — and Islamists pushing their Shariah-based agenda for making Egypt a Sunni version of Iran.

Liberals in Egypt, and in the rest of the Arab world, are a hopelessly beleaguered minority with their wishes for freedom, a rule of law protective of individual rights and gender equality. However much they might detest the military, their survival depends on armed protection. The so-called Arab Spring has shown that for the vast majority of Arabs, freedom means a call for justice, or the imposition of Shariah.

The huge electoral victory for religious parties — the Freedom and Justice party (the parliamentary face of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the Salafi Al-Nour party — was indicative of what the people want. Democracy simply as majority rule can be highly oppressive for those who are in minority.

If democracy is to be saved from turning into fascist rule under a popularly elected leader, there must be safeguards for minorities and limits set to what the majority can do. But history and culture of the Arab world under Islam makes little allowance for individual freedom, or provision of equality for minority groups.

There is no escaping from the fact — apologetics aside — that Shariah-based political order is fundamentally at odds with the values of modern liberal democracy. It is under such circumstance, or choice between bad and worse, that Egypt’s military, despite its past record, holds paradoxically the slender promise of safeguarding individual freedom and minority rights.

In removing Hosni Mubarak from power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi demonstrated to the Egyptian people the military is on their side and protective of their interests. Tantawi and members of SCAF might well have decided to step back in standing behind an elected civilian president, and the events of the past year very likely have unfolded according to their plan. The military will rule with its iron fist in a velvet glove, and given the dire straits of the Egyptian economy such an arrangement could turn out to be the only sane outcome.

This will mean most importantly the military will not relinquish its hold over the key policy issues relating to foreign affairs and defence — in other words, maintaining the strategic relationship with the United States and Israel.

It will be a tough balancing act for SCAF, but the alternatives are terribly bleak for the Arab world’s largest country at the edge of an economic meltdown and in the grip of Islamist fantasies.