The current round of protests in Egypt—the most sustained since July and the largest since Hosni Mubarak's fall last February—have occurred in response to the military's efforts to institutionalize a role for itself in the political system after the hand-over to civilian rule. Yet Egyptians are not just protesting against the authority of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that came to power after Mubarak's fall, but rather the legitimacy of the military's domination of politics since 1952. That is why Tahrir activists refer to what is happening as the continuation of the revolution that began with the January uprising. The SCAF's response to the mass demonstrations risks provoking further dangerous divisions in society, throwing the elections for the People's Assembly slated for November 28 into doubt.
(For more background, read Cook's The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square)
The military has responded to the challenge with both force and a series of concessions that have done little to either intimidate or mollify the crowds. Field Marshal Tantawi and his officers have declared their intention to hand power over to civilians in the summer of 2012—a year earlier than planned—and resurrected Mubarak-era prime minister Kamal Ghanzouri to form a new transitional civilian cabinet. (Protesters have responded with a declaration of a national salvation government led by former IAEA secretary general Mohamed ElBaradei.) Indeed, the Field Marshal seems to be making the same mistakes that President Mubarak made during the January-February uprising, specifically counting on the "silent majority" of Egyptians to insulate the regime from political challenge, dismissing the authenticity of the protests, and signaling that the officers know what is best for Egypt. Such miscalculations helped galvanize Egyptians against Mubarak's rule.
It is clear, however, that the SCAF are less interested in the Tahrir protesters than those who remain on the sidelines. This is another echo of Mubarak's last days, but unlike the January-February uprising, the military actually has some reason to believe that it can be successful, even if the dangerous polarization of Egyptian society is the price it must pay to prevail. In the Abbasiyya part of Cairo—home to SCAF headquarters—there are from ten to twenty thousand Egyptians demonstrating in support of the military. This number is dwarfed by the throngs in Tahrir, but cannot be dismissed.
The officers seem to be wrong in their belief that non-mobilized Egyptians will support whatever the Ministry of Defense deems is in the best interest of Egypt, but over the course of the last nine months there are average Egyptians who have soured on the uprising. Much of Cairo beyond Tahrir and its immediate environs remains quiet, and while there are no doubt many who sympathize with the demands for change, there are also people who have grown weary of the disruption of their daily lives that comes with the demonstrations. The military's words and concessions—if they can be called that—are intended to satisfy those who came late to the demonstrations in January and February, but were nevertheless the critical mass that helped bring Mubarak down.
It is unclear whether the military's gambit of dividing Egyptians will work. Regardless of whether the officers or protesters prevail, the events of the past week are likely to deepen fissures in society. This is not just an unfortunate turn of events for Egypt, but the entire region since it was hoped that the promise of Tahrir Square would help propel a more democratic Middle East. It may still yet prove to be a catalyst for regional change, but the forces defending the status quo are clearly not going to give up without a fight.