<em>Illustration: Michael Leunig</em>

Illustration: Michael Leunig

The jig was up in Cairo when Barack Obama coughed up to the generals a cool $1.5 billion that he might have dangled before them to keep them on democracy's straight and narrow.

Instead, he threw the money a couple of months back and they've been running amok ever since. The military cordon they placed around the Egyptian Parliament on Friday was the latest in a series of staggering events that can be spelt out in a four-letter word - coup.

With hardly a murmur of international criticism, the generals have amassed more power for themselves than the ousted dictatorship had, even to the point of reinstating the worst aspects of the hated emergency laws on Wednesday.

The generals have been artful in convincing the world that they are well intentioned - since the January day last year, when they sacrificed the dictator Hosni Mubarak as the price for their own power and vested interests, right up to Thursday's twin rulings by their crony mates on the Supreme Constitutional Court, which sacked the country's new Parliament and gave a leg-up to another crony mate in the presidential race.

They have scuppered the Parliament and derailed the drafting of a new constitution, and if/when their preferred candidate wins the presidency, they'll all kick back with a shisha pipe and lock in their vision for the new Egypt - which is very much like the old Egypt.

They are having an each-way bet. In the event their man goes down to the Islamist candidate running against him, the junta will have all the power it needs to nobble the new president through its clench on the new parliamentary elections and the drafting of the new constitution.

They have created, deliberately I suspect, an electoral mess that is unlikely to produce a legitimate, unifying president - and thereby, they create the justification for their argument that they must retain the power to watch over him. At the same time they have cleverly debased the judiciary, so if anyone has a complaint or grievance, where do they take it?

In timing the court decisions just a couple of days before this weekend's presidential run-off vote, the generals are challenging voters, arguing implicitly that in the absence of a Parliament and a constitution, they would be mad to support the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Instead, they say, vote for our mate Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force chief who served as Mubarak's last prime minister and who pretty well says that he'll give them more of what they had under the dictator.

Egypt's place in the Arab world vested huge historical and, by example, significance in its people's 18-day revolt. Displaying phenomenal courage, they stole back their rights and resources from the club of arrogant generals who had ruled for decades. They had crafted the crown jewel of the Arab Spring.

Or so they thought.

But the people played into the generals' hands. At first, the Muslim Brotherhood stood back, but in a rush of blood to the head, the brothers figured they could outrun all others and so lunged for control of the parliament and the presidency. They pretty well had the parliament stitched up and were well placed to capture the presidency in this weekend's presidential run-off vote.

But in the absence of a governing constitution and as the economy has crumbled, the parliament wandered aimlessly and - again, I suspect the generals were manipulating events for a particular outcome - the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity plummeted.

"From a democratic perspective, this is the worst possible outcome imaginable," the research director at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, Shadi Hamid, told The New York Times. "This is an all-out power grab by the military."

It's worth noting that Cairo was the venue in 2009 for Mr Obama's ''A New Beginning'' speech to the Muslim world, in which he said:

''I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.''

Never did a man travel so far to say so much and then seemingly to forget at a subsequent point in time when the words he had uttered might have had persuasive effect.

Oh yes, there has been lip service criticism of the generals by Washington - like Hillary Clinton's ''there can be no going back'' rebuke this week. But remember her insistence on all-important ''stability'' as Mubarak teetered last year?

Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst Eric Trager noted what he describes as US comfort with the military takeover - "the American-Egyptian military relationship has been the linchpin of bilateral relations for nearly three decades, and many in Washington believed that the Egyptian military could provide stability for a country experiencing unprecedented turmoil."

The Cairo generals are banking on revolution fatigue. Quite sensibly, they are punting that the revolution's leaders probably will be hard pressed to get up a second round of protest crowds in Tahrir Square.

So the great unknown this weekend is whether the generals have successfully pulled off their coup, the result of which will be a Mubarak-style regime, dressed up with just enough bells and whistles, to tell the world that it is not what it is.

Or will there be a repeat of Algeria 1991 - when a move by the generals against Islamists on the cusp of democratic success sparked a decade-long civil war, in which as many as 200,000 people are estimated to have died. Something in between?

''Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup," the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat, tweeted after Thursday's court rulings. And perhaps confirming the generals' belief that revolution fatigue will save them, added: "We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted."