There are only three ways to deal with the sort of uprising that has occurred in the last week in Egypt: smash it, face it down more or less peacefully, or yield to it. Mobs, even when they are championing a good cause, are cowardly and easily routed by force. Napoleon demonstrated this with his famous “whiff of grapeshot” (cannons loaded with small pellets or other hard objects). So did Deng Xiaoping in Tiananmen Square. Charles de Gaulle wrote the playbook for facing down demonstrators and strikes in 1968: He waited for the bourgeois instincts of the French to bubble up in concern that these antics would actually cost them money, ostentatiously assured himself of the loyalty of the army (after the chief of the Paris police said, in accord with precedent, that the force was no longer reliable), and then spoke to the country for less than five minutes.
“As the sole legitimate repository of national and republican power, I have, in the last 24 hours, considered every means, I repeat every means, for the conservation of that power,” he began. He then announced that he would not retire: “I have a mandate from the people; I will fulfill it.” He would not replace the prime minister, “whose value, solidity, and capacity have earned the homage of all,” and had already dissolved the National Assembly for new elections. These would take place in the ways and on the timetable provided by the Constitution, unless the agents of chaos — whom he identified as totalitarian Communists, “colored, at the outset, with the deceiving appearance of discredited politicians who would shortly be discarded” – prevailed. In such an event, it was clear, he would unleash the notoriously heavy-handed French army.
He concluded: “The republic will not abdicate. . . . Progress, independence, and peace will prevail with liberty. Vive la République! Vive la France!” This was an unanswerable reply: let the bourgeoisie become bored and alarmed and then stand absolutely on democracy against mob rule, and — if the mobs disrupt the democratic processes — deploy overwhelming force. The uprising collapsed like a soufflé and, in the campaign following, de Gaulle asked where the revolutionary leaders had been when he had defied Nazi Germany, and when he had crushed army putschists. He then won the greatest electoral victory in 175 years of sporadic republican French history.
The key questions on the use of force are: Will the regime fire live ammunition at the protesters and will the forces responsible for ending the demonstrations carry out such orders? The Shah of Iran, like Louis XVI, declined to fire on his own people and had to flee (a gentler fate than the French king’s decapitation). There was no hesitation in Tiananmen Square (even though fire hoses and rubber bullets would have been sufficient), nor by the late presidents Hafez Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And their orders were carried out. But when Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu gave the same orders in 1989, the army and police mutinied instead, and seized and executed Ceauşescu and his wife.
It need hardly be emphasized that Mubarak is not de Gaulle and Egypt, unlike France, is not and never has been a democracy, but Mubarak has followed some of the same techniques. He waited for there to be some looting and presumably disconcertion of responsible members of the public, deployed the army to prevent utter mayhem but with very restrained rules of engagement, not testing its willingness to go to extremes for an 82-year-old despot who has been fairly loose with official largesse and has never been especially popular. And he promised fair elections on the existing timetable. At the time of writing, the demonstrations are continuing, but I doubt if they can be sustained just to bring forward the end of the Mubarak era by a few months.