Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Crackdown

Photo by Al Jazeera English. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Looks like Mubarak doesn't want to go with dignity. Things have gotten very ugly indeed today in Cairo. As usual, it's hard to be 100% certain about the information coming in, but a fairly clear picture seems to have emerged nevertheless. Here's the story as I see it. I'm dropping the "I believe" and "probably" and other disclaimers for readability; keep in mind that what follows is something I've put together from a stream of data from a variety of source ranging from professional reporters tweeting from on location to news reports to random but possibly credible Net chatter.

First, the main players.

We have the Egyptian army. It is a conscript force. That means that it's going to be very hard to get it to fire on demonstrators. They can, essentially, occupy space. They're about 460,000 strong, and armed with modern weaponry entirely unsuited to the current situation.

We have the Interior Ministry "police" forces. This is a professional force, paid by Mubarak and his ministers.

Mubarak wants to avoid a full-on Tiananmen-style massacre by armed and uniformed forces, partly because there's a good chance it wouldn't work, and partly because it would probably force Obama to cut off the $1.3B paid annually to him. Also, the military wouldn't do it anyway. The police might.

First, he made a speech yesterday which suggested that victory was almost around the corner. This got a good many of the demonstrators on Tahrir Square to go home. Then, he got the religious authorities in the country, with whom he clearly has a lot of leverage, to ask that demonstrations be called off. Both the Coptic Pope Shenouda and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa complied. This much is uncontroversial.

Then, he dressed up the police in civvies, distributed signs and leaflets to them, equipped them with melee weapons, and sent them in a coordinated attack on the now half empty Tahrir Square. Reporters on location—among them Nick Kristof from NY Times, Ben Wedemann of CNN, Lyse Doucet of BBC, and a big bunch from Al Jazeera, are all corroborating this; also, police ID's taken from "pro-Mubarak demonstrators" have been broadcast on TV.

It's hard to tell what the big picture is around the country; the attention has been mostly focused on and around Tahrir Square. There has been fighting, injuries, and deaths, as well as arson and looting. In any case, the carnival atmosphere of the preceding days is gone. This is now serious.

I still think it's unlikely Mubarak will survive this. John Simpson on BBC outlined a couple of scenarios by which these kinds of things usually play out. Worth a read.

By ordering his thugs to Tahrir, Mubarak crossed a Rubicon. It's now a fight to the end. Either he manages to break the spirit of the demonstrators, or vice versa.

I don't think today's events will do it. The first week belonged to the revolutionaries. Today's outcome is still unclear. There will be more of the same in the coming days.

And let's not forget that this is being played out all over Egypt, not just on a square in Cairo. The square is of symbolic value only; if the thugs succeed in driving off the demonstrators, that will, in and of itself, mean nothing.

This may take a while yet.


  1. The play this regime is using to discredit and demoralize the protesters is not working. The economy has been shut down. The thug army has been conclusively linked to the regime. With the prime minister's apology, countries will start to condemn Mubarak's actions and will have a difficult time accepting Suleiman as a replacement (despite all the good work he and the U.S. have done together to torture human beings in the name of fighting terrorism).

    Methinks it is over.

  2. Oh, I hope you're right. On the other hand, I dared think it was over day before yesterday. There have been way too many false dawns in the Middle East; have your heart broken a few times and you get a bit careful about all that hopey stuff though.

    Today's developments have been encouraging, though, and the War Nerd, bless his coal-black ice-cold lump of a heart, cheered me up no end. He's called just about every war in the 15 years or so I've been reading him, and he seems to think Mubarak is just about cooked.

  3. I don't know. This is the kind of shit that slowly brings movements down. They seem to be hanging in there, but so much seems calculated. From the army's mixed bag of responses, to the pro-Mubarak thugs that appeared, to all the speeches. The government has done a good job of maintaining a slow burn effect, which doesn't prompt our government (U.S.) or other power players to ramp up the response, but is having an effect on the protesters.

  4. Sorry, Nathan, but I disagree with that reading. Whatever this is, this isn't calculated. There are some things you just don't get in a well-planned and coordinated crackdown by an autocratic government with enough resources to do it.

    You don't see government thugs losing a street fight on live TV.

    You don't see government figures apologizing to the opposition.

    You don't see government figures put under house arrest.

    You don't see the military evicting government thugs from a position using armored vehicles, again on live TV.

    You don't see opposition activists getting arrested at random, beaten up, and immediately released.

    You don't see the number 2 in the state TV defecting.

    This is still too early to call, I think, but it's pretty clear that the Mubarak regime is in disarray. The opposition too, of course, because it never was that arrayed to start with. Now it's a contest of will. Either Mubarak's thugs will succeed in breaking the will of the pro-democracy movement, or vice versa. It could take hours, days, weeks, months, or even years.

  5. Calculation doesn't always equal control. They can be putting out focused attempts to keep things going in a certain direction, and still completely fail at doing so. I agree that Mubarak's government is a mess, but that doesn't mean some of the elements we are seeing, including that apology, weren't directly designed to maintain some appearance of control and worthiness (in the eyes of power brokers like the U.S.).

    Seems that even the Obama Administration is starting to crack on the issue, so perhaps the end of the Mubarak era will be coming soon.

  6. Oh, they're calculating, for sure. A little. Mostly I think they're just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, though; I don't think there's a grand plan there, just very short-term tactical action and reaction.

    Also, this isn't up to Obama, although he can help, of course. Perhaps even a bit more than my blog. ;-)

  7. The only reason I mention Obama is that if they decide to pull the financial aid strings, and publicly isolate the regime, that's a big thing. Otherwise, I'd so much rather our government had nothing much to do with it, given their horrid track record.