By Hani Sabra
The chance of a confrontation between the ruling military council and Egypt's revolutionary activists in the country's turbulent political transition is rising. This is because the military council has failed to address activist concerns, particularly their calls for speedy trials of former regime officials and security sector reform. Despite the growing tensions, the two sides will likely achieve a short-term deal, but risks are growing.
Until recently the military council and the activists that led the occupation of Tahrir Square made efforts to appear as partners in the transition. The two sides still need each other, but the hostility is no longer hidden. Egypt's secular leaning "youth" activists are less concerned with electoral politics and are more focused on making a cleaner break from the Mubarak-era, including jail for human rights violators -- something the military wants to avoid. Frustration among the activists was accelerated by recent court rulings that delayed trials or exonerated police officers accused of killing protestors. A late June clash between police and activists in Tahrir Square also raised the stakes.
The council had gambled that it could avoid reforms while directing the transition unimpeded. It hoped that the activists were no longer capable of mobilizing large numbers of protestors, something that activists have shown is a false premise. A long planned demonstration on July 8 was well attended, and the reinvigorated activists have articulated a more specific set of demands. These include speedier trials for police accused of killing protestors and Mubarak-era regime figures, an end to military tribunals, and limits to the military council's power. The military council is unlikely to respond positively to all demands, but it will likely make new overtures in order to avoid a confrontation, especially in light of the July 8 protest and the fact that the activists remain popular with a substantial segment of the urban population.
The activists, however, did not secure the same level of support that they did in January and February. Hosni Mubarak is gone, summers are extremely hot, and many people have tired of protests. But the activists have proven that the military council must contend with them, even as the broader Egyptian public has begun to sour on the council.
The military council likely believed that their tacit understanding with the Islamists would split the opposition and limit the efficacy of protests, but they misread the situation. The Islamists are organized, powerful, and will do well in elections. But the more secular activists have the support of the intellectuals, some of the middle class, and retain the capacity to mobilize a large force of people. In addition, many Islamists, particularly the younger ones, remain suspicious of the military council and continue to participate in protests.
A key signal will be developments regarding Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet. Sharaf, who was the activists' choice for the job, has seen his legitimacy wane over the past few months and many now perceive him as a stooge of the military council. His first overture to the activists on July 9 was not well received. But if Sharaf quits and the council appoints some more amenable, the risk of instability will rise sharply.
Hani Sabra is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.