Following last weekend’s disputed presidential election results, when the ruling military rejected early victory claims by the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally against the military. Last night, the protests hit its largest turnout, setting up an unprecedented showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that has been decades in the making.The dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and military goes back over a half century to the early 1950s when the Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Nasser overthrew pro-British King Farouk and established the modern Egyptian state. Despite eliciting the Muslim Brotherhood’s support during the revolution, Nasser feared the Brotherhood’s power and influence and shortly after taking power he began to heavily persecute them (including the famous execution of the influential radical Islamist-thinker Sayyid Qutb). The periods of brutal repression by Nasser and his successors Sadat (who was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood) and Mubarak, forced the Brotherhood underground and continue to build their Islamic network of schools and charities until the right opportunity arises again. Their strategy has been relatively effective; today they represent one of the most formidable forces in Egypt and a direct challenge to the military’s power.But the military has also been busy. As this very useful BBC article shows, the military has built an immense industrial and economic empire. Factories, housing developments, banks, tourist resorts: this doesn’t just give the military money and hold the institution together (cushy, well paid jobs on retirement). It gives the military political and social clout. In a desperately poor country like Egypt, having jobs and business contracts to offer can bring you a whole network of supporters, including the families and relatives of the people you hire. Moreover, the military has colonized the civilian government; as the BBC article points out, most provincial governors and many heads of both private and public companies are run by retired military personnel.(This pattern isn’t unique to Egypt. In a number of developing countries the military, as the most cohesive force in the state and in many countries the best source of trained high level personnel, ends up by deeply penetrating and dominating the economic as well as the political life of the country. Most recently, this is what the Cuban military has been up to for the last fifteen years or so.)Anyway, for sixty years now in Egypt, the two forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have dominated the scene, and each side has been steadily building up its economic, social and ideological support. So far, the military has won every confrontation, and the consequences of confrontation for the Islamists have been devastating. People get tortured in Egyptian jails. On the other hand, factions within the Brotherhood who are ready to work within the military dominated system don’t do that badly. They have been able to build up institutional and patronage networks and the role of Islam in public life and law has gradually grown.The Muslim Brotherhood has been pushing for more power in the chaos that followed the overthrow of Mubarak. The military now evidently feels that the time is right to reassert its basic control over Egypt. The Islamists seem split; some are ready to follow the traditional path of accommodation and patience; others feel that the time for direct action has come.The military has made clear what it offers: a continuation of the old system with a little bit more sugar-coating and a little more civilian (which is to say, Islamist) power in political life. We shall soon see whether the Brotherhood is willing to settle.