In a square where millions once protested, chanting " erhal, erhal" telling Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to leave, Cairo's Tahrir Square was reduced at times Friday to a site where only dozens demonstrated their anger after seismic events that had many thinking a coup had taken place.
The small scale of public protest was a surprising and revealing development. It came just one day before the country votes in the final round of the freest presidential election it's ever had, and one day after Egypt's constitutional court ruled that a controversial figure from the Mubarak regime was eligible to be a candidate in that election. And, in a legal bombshell, the court also ruled that the country's recently elected parliament must be dismissed because of voting irregularities.
The stunning ruling left many political activists crying "military coup," insisting that the army had usurped legislative powers and that the regime's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, would be elected president, taking the country "back to square one," a.k.a. Egypt as it was under Mr. Mubarak.
With so much seemingly at stake, the remarkably small protests in this volatile nation raise several questions:
Has there been a military coup?
No, the military has always had supreme executive power as the acting head of state since Mr. Mubarak was ousted 16 months ago. It even had legislative powers from the day Mr. Mubarak left office until the elected assembly convened earlier this year. So when people say the dismissal of parliament this week means handing legislative responsibility over to the military leadership, this is nothing novel.
On the other hand, should the acting executive – the military leadership – not issue a decree calling an election some time soon, then there would be reason for some concern.
Is this a setback for the revolution?
It's a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to lose a large number of seats in a new parliamentary election, but it's a second chance for Egyptians eager for change to select a more representative People's Assembly.
The MPs that the court said had been improperly elected were those who ran for seats intended only for independent individuals. In violation of electoral law, the Muslim Brotherhood pushed for and got permission to run party candidates for those independent seats.
With big parties out of the way next time, many diverse independents will have a chance at election and many of the young liberal activists who sat out last year could contest seats.
Why so few protesters?
The short answer is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Salafists have told their people not to protest. It was the Islamists who mostly filled the squares last year with protesters, and party leaders know that much of the country is fed up with the chaos and turmoil. If protests get out of hand again, Gen. Shafiq and his law-and-order campaign will benefit.
The other answer is that a lot of Egyptians are confused about the whole democratic mess and don't know what to do.
Who benefits by it all?
Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, could gain the most from these court rulings and controversy. With parliament gutted, the Brotherhood poses less of a threat to control both legislative and executive branches. Free of worrying about that, many who planned to vote for Gen. Shafiq may feel free to vote for Mr. Morsi or to abstain.
And Mr. Morsi is doing his best to appear presidential, quickly announcing he respects the court rulings and going about his campaigning with no encouragement to protesters.
Gen. Shafiq, on the other hand, also could come out on top. Getting the stamp of approval from the high court could remove doubts many might have felt about having a former prime minister from the Mubarak era running for the highest office.