The reluctance with which demonstrators vacated Cairo's Tahrir Square this week carried a strong message for Egypt's new military rulers. Exhilarated by the success of the 18 days of protests that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power, those packing up to leave were in no mood to see their efforts come to nought. As much as, grudgingly, they acknowledged the need for a return to normality, they were equally intent on ensuring the fruits of the popular uprising - the lifting of a state of emergency and a handover to civilian rule after free and fair elections - are not delayed indefinitely.

The council of generals has been relatively coy about its plans. It has dissolved the constitution and the Parliament elected by a rigged vote last year, but insisted it will govern until elections are held, possibly in six months. Optimists suggest that is a reasonable timetable, given the need to draw up a new constitution, which the military says will be the subject of a referendum. It also provides the opportunity for the organisation of a healthy array of political parties. But pessimists say it will simply give the military leaders time to relish their unbridled power, and to undertake the kind of constitutional tinkering that allows them and others of the old guard to resist the people's will.

The latter course would deny what has occurred in Egypt. This was a popular revolution, not a coup d'etat. It was led by students seeking permanent change in their country. They see the influence of the army, which sustained Mubarak in power for 32 years, as a major part of the problem, not the solution. If the generals engendered confidence and trust by their restraint in dealing with the demonstrators, thereby paving the way for a largely non-violent revolution, the well of popular goodwill remains relatively shallow.

History is, of course, replete with generals who have seized power and then proved reluctant to relinquish it, often on the grounds that only they can supply stability. Burma provides a recent example. But, more promisingly, there have been examples of military rulers ushering countries through the transition to popular democracy. Turkey and Indonesia are examples of nations where generals have stepped aside following the emergence of resourceful and responsible civilian politicians.

In both countries, progress towards a stable democracy was neither quick nor problem-free. Egypt will also have its teething troubles. Most immediate attention will focus on the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood and the potential consequences of a more assertively Islamic Egypt for the Middle East. But it played only a subdued role in the uprising, and will be only one of a number of parties seeking influence. At the other end of the political spectrum will surely be an entity seeking a liberal, secular and progressive Egypt, which will seek the votes of a preponderantly young and increasingly educated people.

The protest organisers have put the military rulers on notice in more ways than one. They have formed a Council of Trustees to defend the revolution and urge swift reform of Mubarak's corrupt and oppressive system. Given the nature of the uprising, the generals will ignore that ambition at their peril. The protesters are clearly determined to remain vigilant. Any sign that the military is planning to deviate from its election timetable, or seeking to undermine free and fair elections in its own interests, is certain to bring a swift retort.

Successful popular uprisings enshrine potent messages. Egypt can never be the same again. Its military rulers would be wise to read the writing on the wall and acknowledge as much.