CAIRO — Egypt's ruling military and protesters seeking greater and faster change are moving into an outright collision, as the generals try to strip away public support for the movement while cozying up to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
Youth activists are not backing down, betting that Egyptians' dissatisfaction with the military's running of the country will grow.
The generals, in power since the February ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, have launched an intensified media campaign against the protest activists, depicting them as a troublemaking minority and agents paid by foreign governments to grab power in an apparent attempt to turn the public against them. The message could have some appeal among Egyptians growing tired of continued unrest and fragile security.
At the same time, the military is cultivating ties with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which joined liberal and leftist youth in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak but has since split with them on multiple issues. By cultivating the Brotherhood, the generals can take advantage of their large popular support base to counter the young protesters' influence.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body of generals that have taken over from Mubarak, praised the Brotherhood on Monday, saying they were playing a constructive role in post-Mubarak Egypt.
"Day by day, the Brotherhood are changing and are getting on a more moderate track," he said in a speech in Washington at the United States Institute of Peace. "They have the willingness to share in the political life ... they are sharing in good ways."
The generals have also encouraged street protests by pro-military groups. Dozens of army supporters have held daily rallies the past two weeks in a square in northeastern Cairo, getting heavy TV coverage, aimed at counterbalancing a tent camp by the youth activists at Tahrir Square, the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
If the tension between the two camps boils over, it could plunge Egypt deeper into chaos, even sparking clashes. That could derail the country's transition to democratic rule, a failure that could have wider implications on a region that is looking to Egypt to provide a role model for pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
A sign of the dangers came Saturday, when thousands of protesters made a peaceful march on the Defense Ministry in Cairo to push demands that police officers responsible for the killing of some 850 protesters during anti-Mubarak uprising be brought to justice and that military trials of civilian protesters be stopped. They were attacked by bands of men armed with sticks, knives and firebombs.
Hundreds of military police backed by anti-riot policemen stood by without intervening as the two sides fought for several hours. At least 300 people were wounded in the clashes.
The protest movement began to hike up pressure on the military earlier this month, launching their sit-in protest in Tahrir. One of their top demands is that the killers of protesters be brought to justice, but they also complain that the generals have mismanaged the transition to democratic rule, operating without transparency and dragging their feet in weeding out Mubarak loyalists from the judiciary, the civil service and the police force. Their ultimate fear is that the military will allow much of Mubarak's authoritarian regime to stay in place.
The generals have countered by doing some revision of history, aiming to restore their longtime status as the ultimate authority in Egypt. For example, they have sought to depict themselves as equal partners with the Tahrir protesters in the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's 29-year regime.
Over the weekend, the military took its rhetoric against the protesters into a dramatically higher gear. A military statement over the weekend accused a key youth group, April 6, of driving a wedge between the armed forces and Egyptians and of receiving foreign funding and training.
It also criticized "Kifaya," or "Enough!", a movement that emerged in 2004 and was the first in Egypt to publicly call for Mubarak's removal and to oppose plans for his son Gamal to succeed him. One general said Kifaya was an "imported" movement, suggesting that it was created, financed and controlled by foreign powers.
Columnist Wael Kandil criticized the military's comments Monday in the independent daily Al-Shorouq, warning that "we are now in the phase of burning the revolution."
"The only thing left is to bring a tailor to take Mubarak's measurements to make him a new set of suits for his triumphant return," he wrote.
Activists from April 6 and Kifaya denied the military charges, accusing the generals of using Mubarak-era tactics.
The military has also been making a major media push. Numerous retired army generals have appeared on TV political talk shows as commentators in recent days, promoting the military council's line.
This week, the host of one popular show, Dina Abdel-Rahman, was fired after repeated criticism of the military, including a sharp debate with one of the retired generals who called in to her show defending the military council.
Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, said her firing was a warning to others.
"Fear of the military is still great," he said.
"I expect a clash between the two sides," said analyst Hala Mustafa. "There exists a huge gap in their vision and tempo. Unlike the revolutionaries, the generals want to reform the system from within while they want to bring it down and build a new one in its place."
A senior Brotherhood figure, Essam el-Erian, said the youth activists protesting against the military were trying to dominate Egypt's politics but have failed to convince the majority of Egyptians.
He denied any growing ties between the Brotherhood and the military, saying they agree only on one issue — that elections should be held to transfer power to the people. The military has called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year, and the Brotherhood is expected to do well in the voting.
El-Erian warned that the alternative is a military coup.
"The military would tell us, 'You go back home', and they will manage the country. That would be a coup," he told The Associated Press.
In the other camp, Mustafa Shawki, a key youth activist, acknowledged that smaller numbers have been showing up for Tahrir Square rallies. But he said the military's continued mismanaging of the transition will fuel public discontent.
"We are at the end of the second wave of the revolution," he said. "What will bring about the third wave of the revolution is the failure of the military council to bring about social justice. That will win back support for the revolutionaries that has currently been lost."