RECENT events in Egypt, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau could herald the return of Africa's "Men on Horseback" - the military - to the continent's political stage. From Africa's first military coup in Egypt in 1952, Africa's military horsemen rode onto the national stage more than 70 times in the next four decades in countries such as Togo, Ghana, Sudan, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

Since no ruling party was voted out of power in Africa between 1960 and 1990, the army was often viewed as an alternative "political party" and the only means for "regime change".

In the post-Cold War era, more democratic governments emerged across the continent and the African Union (AU) sought to distinguish itself from its discredited predecessor, which had tolerated the excesses of semi literate buffoons such as Uganda's Idi Amin and Liberia's Samuel Doe based on a rigid non interventionist position. The AU sought to outlaw military coups by drafting rules against unconstitutional regime change by 2000, though some former military strongmen in Egypt, Libya, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Rwanda continued to parade as pseudo-democrats. The AU, however, strongly opposed military coups in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Niger and Madagascar.

Recent events in Egypt threaten to jeopardise some of the gains made over the past two decades. By issuing an undemocratic decree granting the military unearned powers over the budget, a veto over the passing of laws and effective control over writing a new constitution on the eve of the announcement of the results of the country's first ever genuine presidential polls, the 24 senior generals of the Egyptian military have demonstrated disdain for the will of 50-million Egyptian voters. The country's parliament has also been suspended, almost certainly with the connivance of the military.

This could plunge the country into a dangerous period of political instability. Even though moderate Islamist and US-educated engineer Mohamed Mu rsi's presidential victory has been acknowledged, real power will still continue to flow from the barrel of a gun. Egypt's "deep state" of securocrats continues to rule from the shadows, controlling internal security and foreign policy. Tawdry back-room deals are no way to build a functioning democracy.

As with previous rhetorically reformist African military regimes of the past, Cairo's current "men on horseback" are demonstrating a similar hubris as the 30 -year regime of Hosni Mubarak from which they withdrew support after last year's popular uprising.

One should not be naive about what this blatantly undemocratic power-grab represents: a military coup. But unlike in the past, the action is not against an unelected regime but against the expressed will of Egyptian voters. This act is a crude anachronism. The AU should make its voice heard clearly in this case.

Two precedents illustrate the dangerous political dead-end down which Egypt's military brass hats could be marching their country. After soldiers in Algeria annulled elections that Islamists were poised to win in 1991, a bloody civil war erupted that resulted in more than 100000 deaths and $20bn in damages. The country's leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, continues to be dogged by reports of ill health and fraudulent elections backed by a military junta.

In historically coup-prone Nigeria, the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida had conducted a "transition without end" from 1986, in which it imposed political ideologies on a militarily-mandated two-party system. The junta's subsequent annulment of democratic elections in 1993 resulted in mass protests and strikes; a weak, illegitimate interim government; and the tyrannical five-year rule of Sani Abacha. Civilian rule was restored to Nigeria only in 1999, but the country is still struggling to recover from decades of military misrule.

Sixty years after the Nasserite coup signalled Africa's first ever putsch, his military heirs in Cairo appear to be bent on illegitimately clinging to power: history has come full circle. The heavy-handed actions of the Egyptian military and the more recent toppling of democratically elected regimes in Guinea-Bissau and Mali are disturbing trends in contemporary African politics. If allowed to continue, the "Afro-Arab Spring" could well turn into a "winter of discontent". Africa's "men on horseback" must return to their barracks where they belong.

. Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.