Protests Turn to Revolt as Egyptian Regime Weakens

by Charlie Szrom

 

The mass protests in Egypt that began on Tuesday evolved into a full-fledged revolt today.  The regime attempted to prevent this by dramatically increasing repressive measures.  It ordered the military to deploy to the streets to reinforce police units.  Tanks soon followed the soldiers into the streets.  The regime also shut off Internet access.  

The renewed crackdown has resulted in at least 18 dead and 900 wounded.  But the regime appears to have weakened, not strengthened, itself in the process.  The regime has been unable to stem the protests.  It announced a curfew.  Yet tens of thousands remained in the streets.  The ruling party’s headquarters has gone up in flames.  Reports abound of the burning of other police stations and party offices across the country.  Crowds have thronged around those vehicles that have deployed into the streets.  It appears in some cases that police and military units have stood down in the face of demonstrations.  The military, for example, chose to protect the Egyptian Museum, but, importantly, not the party headquarters.

In nonviolent revolutions over the years, the willingness of the security and armed forces to fire upon the demonstrators has been critical in determining the outcome of protests.  In 1989, the Chinese regime orchestrated a bloodbath to ensure its survival.  In Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, security forces chose not to attack civilians.  The Ukrainian military chose not to employ tanks.  The Orange Revolution succeeded, toppling the government after civilians camped out in the middle of Kiev.

The situation in Egypt appears to be somewhere between that of Tiananmen and that of Ukraine.  Protesters have died and hundreds have been wounded.  Tanks and other armored vehicles have entered the streets.  But the protests either are too large and dispersed for the security forces to handle or the security forces do not have the tolerance for massacre or coordination that Chinese security forces had in 1989.

The U.S. position on the protests has begun to improve.  On Tuesday, I wrote that the administration should call for unblocking of social media in Egypt.  This has happened.  I also argued that the administration should immediately cut economic aid to Egyptian government by $100 million as a sign of its displeasure with the regime’s treatment of protestors.  Aid continues to flow, but the administration has said that it intends to review current assistance.  The regime has also improved its rhetoric, stating that the regime must respond to Egyptians’ “legitimate grievances.” 

This is despite comments from Vice President Joe Biden stating that Mubarak is not a dictator.  If the use of armored vehicles, tanks, and troops against civilians while cutting off the Internet and trying to rig elections in favor of an unpopular son does not qualify a leader for dictator status, I am not sure what does.

This week’s events have made clear that the Egyptian regime does not have confidence of the Egyptian people.  It should not have the confidence of Washington either.  The challenge for American policy will be to ensure that events going forward in Egypt are favorable to truly democratic groups.  In Iran’s Islamic Revolution, a series of groups collaborated to remove the unpopular shah.  The followers of Ayatollah Khomeini made up just one of those groups.  Ultimately, the Islamists triumphed and hijacked the revolution.  The demonstrations in Egypt did not originate from Islamist groups.  Such groups will, however, attempt to exploit the unstable situation.  The U.S. and its allies should work to undermine radical Islamist groups in the upcoming period, and strengthen democratic groups.  This will also involve exerting pressure upon the Egyptian regime if it remains in power.

 

— Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.