It's possible that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last February, will regain the initiative but it will be very difficult. After months of whittling away at the momentum and morale of the revolutionary movement with arrests, torture and the suppression of protests and strikes - including committing a massacre against minority Copts protesting against sectarian terror that left 24 dead, by last week it seemed that SCAF had the upper hand.
But SCAF demonstrated once again that great historical lesson, that arrogant rulers who are contemptuous and out of touch with those over whom they rule will inevitably push too far. In this case it was their announced intention to implement constitutional amendments that would have elevated the military above the state, shielding it from oversight of its budget and granting it a veto over any civilian policies that affected it. It's worth noting that the military is not just confined to the military but owns and controls about one-third of the Egyptian economy. Their violent attack on the tiny, remaining encampment in Tahrir Square last Saturday was the final straw.
The re-emergence of the revolution's momentum has been so swift and so overwhelming that it has caught everyone by surprise. The military's response - to send in the hard cops, the Central Security Force - to suppress the swelling protests with a carte blanche on the use of violence backfired even further. It is a useful reminder that a revolution needs an enemy to battle and while the nibbles of repressive attrition can sap the will, a frontal assault, on the other hand, can provide a stable target on which people can focus their anger. As I write there may well be one million people in Tahrir Square demanding the overthrow of the military council that was loved and supported as an ally of the revolution only a few months ago.
What is even more surprising in this new phase is the apparent fracturing of the base of the Muslim Brotherhood. Around for a century, the MB have long been the largest and best organized oppositional force in Egypt. Millions follow the MB, which has hundreds of thousands of disciplined members. But the brutality of the Mubarak dictatorship made the MB appear more radical than they actually were and now that space has opened up for the possibility of real and profound change, the MB are demonstrating that they weren't so very radical after all. On the one hand, it doesn't do to be dismissive of the MB as a bunch of counter-revolutionaries, not only because tens of thousands of their members have played important and leading roles in the present revolution even against the wishes of their leaders. But also because it misses the point that the MB's quietism and desire to keep its head down and focus on the elections is, in part, a function of the experience of holding together an oppositional organization under a dictatorship where leaders and cadre suffered imprisonment and torture. The conservatism that was necessary in normal times now appears as pure opportunism when the political arena has been so radically transformed.
The irony of this new phase of the revolution is that it may well not only destroy the SCAF as the ruling force in the country - and profoundly weaken the command structure as middle level officers appear to be going over to the revolution in growing numbers. It may also shatter the long standing centre of opposition to the military.
The American government clearly sees this process unfolding and is panicking a bit at the direction the revolution could take its largest Arab ally - recipient of $1.3 billion in military aid every year (like the tear gas and rubber bullets being used on protestors). Remember back in January when vice president Joe Biden said in an interview that Mubarak was "our" friend and wasn't a dictator? Remember how Hilary Clinton preached a process of slow reform involving Mubarak? How Obama said nothing? They've learned to that they need to get ahead of the curve in order to control the revolutionary process - as they did in Libya where the "revolutionary government" is a pliant client regime for the west. And they clearly now understand that once things degenerate to a certain point, repression only makes things worse, something that the SCAF seems to have missed. But, given their preference for dictatorships over democracies the White House must think that things are pretty bad to come out publicly in support of the demands of the revolution.