Will we standby while Mubarak’s thugs massacre protesters in Egypt?

Egypt angry day 02

Like many of you, I’ve been watching closely as the events in Egypt unfolded this week. When the protests first began on Tuesday of last week it seemed like it might be a brief flare up, quickly repressed like so many others. But momentum grew through the week and the brutality of the police proved ineffective in preventing mass protests after prayers on Friday.

Then on Saturday, the olice left the streets and the media stories began to talk about “looting” and “lawlessness”. It’s clear now that the regime’s hope was that things would get so chaotic that people would beg the police to come back. To encourage this, undercover police joined in the looting and thousands of criminals were released from jail according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Mubarak’s mantra to his own people was that he was the guarantor of the nation’s stability. It would make sense that he would want to send the message that without him, there is no safety,”said Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director at HRW.

But this tactic failed. In some cases, the demonstrators joined security forces in protecting museums from looters linked to Mubarak. What was remarkable on Monday and Tuesday was the stories of people coming together to support one another and keep one another safe. The “neighborhood watch” groups sometimes sounded ominous with their golf clubs and makeshift weapons, but this description yesterday from Democracy Now correspondent, Sharif Abdel Kouddous,> who is on the ground there:

But, you know, the regime continues to try and quell this uprising. And every movement it takes only creates more solidarity amongst the people and more–more solidarity amongst them that this regime must go, that it doesn’t care about the country, that it would like to let the country go to ruins before it will release its grip on power. [The protestors] have seen that in the looting. They’ve said, “How can he let just all security go away and let people loot?” They’ve formed their own committees, these neighborhood committees, which are very organized now all across Egypt, and there’s been very little crime. Egypt is reborn in this way. Egyptians have come together to claim this country, and they’re going to continue to do so until Mubarak leaves. (from Millions Against Mubarak: Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous Reports Live from Tahrir Amid Massive Protest)

Of course, the army has been a presence since the weekend, but they have remained remarkably neutral or even sympathetic to the protestors in some cases. The army was cheered when the arrived in contrast to the police who are widely reviled for their use of torture and repression. One video even seems to show the military protecting protesters from the police.

Mubarak mobs systematically take back Liberation Square

All this brings us today, when Mubarak supporters, including men on camel and horseback arrived to throw systematically clear Tahrir square. The eye witness description of their strategy from the Atlantic sounds chillingly well planned:

The pro-Mubarak group flooded the square, and its strategy became clear: All the entrances to the plaza were being probed and, if found lightly defended, overrun. I was now on the outside among the forward surge; no one was permitted to leave, but a trickle of captured protesters came out, each surrounded by at least a hundred screaming Mubarak supporters, and being beaten so intensely that I couldn’t see their faces, only a circle of waving sticks and fists, raining down on whatever unfortunate was at the center. One female protester was brought out, thrashed, and delivered to a military unit inside the Egyptian Museum grounds.

This is not political expression, these are the actions of thugs coordinating with plain clothes police officers. They are playing the same role that the paramilitaries do in Colombia. When the military and the police can’t get it done, send in death squads. Here’s a quote from a harrowing phone interview from a woman in the square just a few hours ago describing the attack:

They are coming in government cars… all of them are undercover police. We don’t have a single ambulance. There are hundreds and hundreds of wounded. Mubarak didn’t send protestors, he sent mercenaries… It’s a massacre of unarmed women and children and people who are demonstrating for their rights.

At this point, the questions turn to the international community. Will they back up their words and withdrawal military aid from Egypt? Or will they sit idly by while Mubarak unleashes the chaos that he claims is the only alternative to his dictatorship.

Here’s a quote from Noam Chomsky on today’s broadcast of Democracy Now:

The United States, so far, is essentially following the usual playbook. I mean, there have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There’s a kind of a standard routine–Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto: keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable–typically, say, if the army shifts sides–switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names. That succeeds or fails depending on the circumstances.

And I presume that’s what’s happening now. They’re waiting to see whether Mubarak can hang on, as it appears he’s intending to do, and as long as he can, say, “Well, we have to support law and order, regular constitutional change,” and so on. If he cannot hang on, if the army, say, turns against him, then we’ll see the usual routine played out. Actually, the only leader who has been really forthright and is becoming the most–maybe already is–the most popular figure in the region is the Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who’s been very straight and outspoken.

This is a reminder that Obama’s support for Mubararek and lack of concrete action is consistent with decades of U.S. foreign policy. Chomksy points out that Obama’s speech last night was empty platitudes and puts the responsibility for propping up Mubarak squarely in the lap of the United States:

The U.S. has an overwhelmingly powerful role there. Egypt is the second-largest recipient over a long period of U.S. military and economic aid. Israel is first. Obama himself has been highly supportive of Mubarak. It’s worth remembering that on his way to that famous speech in Cairo, which was supposed to be a conciliatory speech towards the Arab world, he was asked by the press–I think it was the BBC–whether he was going to say anything about what they called Mubarak’s authoritarian government. And Obama said, no, he wouldn’t. He said, “I don’t like to use labels for folks. Mubarak is a good man. He has done good things. He has maintained stability. We will continue to support him. He is a friend.” And so on. This is one of the most brutal dictators of the region, and how anyone could have taken Obama’s comments about human rights seriously after that is a bit of a mystery. But the support has been very powerful in diplomatic dimensions. Military–the planes flying over Tahrir Square are, of course, U.S. planes. The U.S. is the–has been the strongest, most solid, most important supporter of the regime. It’s not like Tunisia, where the main supporter was France. They’re the primary guilty party there. But in Egypt, it’s clearly the United States..

Just go watch or read the whole thing on Democracy now: Noam Chomsky: “This is the Most Remarkable Regional Uprising that I Can Remember”

Cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled

Comments (17)

  1. Eric

    I have been wondering how liberal professional academic theologians are viewing the turmoil in Egypt.
    Are they so biased against Israel that they are hoping to see Israel’s peace with Egypt threatened or even destroyed?
    Are they hoping, praying, and wishing for the instability or dissolution of Israel’s southern border?
    Do they think the bloodshed in Egypt is the price to pay to ‘liberate’ Gaza?
    If so, they have Egyptian blood on their hands and possibly the blood of Israeli children on their hands as well should the peace between Israel and Egypt be destroyed.
    If this is what liberal theologians are hoping for, how can they call themselves peace makers?
    Theology and bloodshed — nothing much has changed since Luther.

  2. Eric

    When you consider how average Egyptians have had to form themselves into vigilante groups in order to protect themselves from looters and those demonstrators who are using violence, one has to wonder who are the thugs.
    My support is with those who are using peaceful means to gain what is rightfully theirs – freedom of speech, rightful assembly and open elections, (elections – something that Israel has had since its conception). However, the peaceful protestors in Egypt seem to be a very small minority.
    Don’t they know that violence begets violence — how do violent protestors expect those with the power to react?

  3. Eric

    As Tim points out, under cover police JOINED the looting – the looting was already underway when these police – for whatever reason – joined them.
    I too would be making frantic calls on my mobile phone if my life was threatened by anyone.

  4. Eric

    Tim seems to be pointing out that the protestors were setting up defensive positions,(-if they were lightly defended they were over run-). How can non – resistant/ pacifists/ peaceful protestors erect a strategic defense? I am not sure how that is compatible with a peaceful demostration.

  5. TimN (Post author)


    These are not non – resistant/ pacifists protesters. They are average Egyptians from all walks of life who are fed up with Mubarak. There were plenty of skirmishes with the police throughout last week.

    Building a strictly nonviolent mass movement takes months of preparation and huge amount of discipline and planning. Due to the highly repressive nature of the regime, this movement had nothing like that. The Washington Post blog I linked to above describes it this way:

    [Bahey El Din] Hassan, who currently is director of a regional human rights group called the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, left Egypt on Jan. 25, the day opposition organizers had planned a “day of rage” against the Egyptian government. In contrast to Tunisia’s spontaneous uprising, Egypt’s was planned. But Hassan said neither he nor the young leaders of the April 6 movement who organized that first protest expected such a huge turnout. Nor did they plan for the demonstrations to continue beyond Jan. 25.

  6. Eric

    Thanks Tim, so we are agreed that this protest is not a peace movement or an appropriate way to bring about change. If we look at the results of violent South American revolutions and in other countries, I find it possible then that one violent regime is likely or at least possible to be replaced with another. People power doesn’t always produce a better outcome, (nor for the shares market of companies in such a country – employment and thus wages depend on the profitability of companies to make a profit – we have already seen a dip in Egypt’s share market).
    Also, do you entertain the possibility that the first peaceful protest triggered what has evolved?
    So, given that this is not a peaceful revolution, do you support it?

  7. Heidi

    It will be very interesting to see how everything in this region plays out. There are not only the events in Egypt but also Jordan and Syria. It seems like the movement for change is spreading daily.

  8. Eric

    Yes, it will be interesting to see what happens in the region. It will have an big impact on America because one of the reasons for the uprising/s was to get an improvement in wages, (and I do believe in a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay — a liveable wage). Because nothing is made/ moved without oil, you may find that everything you buy will cost more. Sure, the American government will pay more — but they have the capacity to pay more even if it results in more debt. However the poor in America do not have the capacity to pay more. Struggling businesses may need to ‘let go’ of workers in order to maintain their profit margins.
    You see, in world trade, when it comes to oil, when the workers and companies in one country get a big lift in their wages, the poor in another country pay the price, while their governments keep going on as per usual.

  9. Eric

    To get a better understanding of Egypt’s problems I sugest this site
    You will find a good discussion about Egypt in the article: ‘Whats behind Egypt’s problems?’.
    It discusses how wealth has historically been distributed, and what the situation is now.
    Another website is Dunner’s blog which refers to stats which seems to be saying that Egypt still exports quite a lot of oil.It also states that America imports 55.8% of its oil from various sources,(as of May 27, 2006).

  10. Tim Baer

    Heidi, sure change is afoot, but what sort of change? I’m anxious to see how this thing plays out. Mubarak served our purposes for a while, now it looks like he no longer can. Will the next person serve U.S. interest?

    TimN, Perhaps I just like to mess with you, but I think you’re overly kind to the protesters and overly harsh on the existing regime. Even in your response to Eric you sort of imply that the protesters would be peaceful if they had the time to organize peacefulness. Can you read minds and intentions a half a world away? I ain’t got no love for Egypt’s ruling dictator who jails people at will without a trial. And if the people of Egypt want democracy and fair trials and fair elections, I fully support them without hesitation. However, it’s apparent that there’s little stability in that part of the world these days, and much of the stability that does exist is created at gunpoint. The Middle East (and Africa) is far from a hotbed of working democracies that allow freedom to citizens without question. Let’s see how the citizens react once Mubarak is out of power and what kind of government the populace puts in place of him.

    I also have a question of how undercover cops joined in the looting and how this was known. If they were undercover & looting, how were they exposed as cops? If they arrested people, how was it known they really looted anything? Seems like propaganda to me.

    I’d love for Mubarak fall and Egypt be turned into a “free” society, whatever that really means.

  11. TimN (Post author)

    Tim B,

    I think its less important in exactly who was involved in looting over the weekend and more important who was involved on the attacks on protesters and journalists yesterday and today.

    More and more reports on the radio and television are suggesting that these are familiar faces: men that were hired in the past by Mubarak during election years as needed. Here’s how the blog on CNN describes it:

    As battles raged between the two sides, some pro-Mubarak protesters were captured by his opponents. Some were terrified to be caught and begged for their lives, screaming that the government had paid them to come out and protest. Others turned out to be carrying what seemed to be police identification, though they were dressed in plain clothes.

    Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution analyst based in Qatar, told CNN that the use of hired muscle to break up demonstrations “is a longtime regime strategy.”

    “There are usually a line of thugs outside a protest who are waiting there,” he said. “They’re dressed in plain clothes, and then they’ll usually go and attack the protesters. Egyptians have seen this for quite some time, and that’s why they were able to recognize what was going on fairly quickly.”

    The global rights group Amnesty International said it has documented the use of unsavory forces by Egyptian authorities to disperse political gatherings in election years.


    I support nonviolent social change in Egypt and those who are risking their lives as part of bringing that about. Your certainly right that one violent regime may be replaced by another. The best way to avoid that is for leaders to listen when more then a million people to come out and march like they did on Tuesday. The actions of the small minority who have been violent does not diminish that powerful, peaceful message. As I said above, these protesters are not pacifists or non-resistant, but the vast majority of them (hundreds of thousands) have been peaceful.

  12. Eric

    I agree Tim, but it took the media to waken them up to the fact that people around the world were watching the violence coming from the mobs of both sides of the equation. Also, according to which reports one listens to, the pro government and anti – government mobs (and thats all I can call them) are about equally split. For the rest of this week, no matter what source I turn to, I am confronted with images of stone throwing and improvised weapon carrying protestors.
    Further, a million people, yes even a million people, are not representative of the population of Egypt. I will have to check but the facts but I think a million represnts about one in seventy eight Egyptians.
    I don’t think such a small minority such as this represents a shift to democracy. If even a third of the people turned out for a ‘peaceful’ protest,it still would not be a representation of the nation as a whole.
    Bring on free and open elections and let us see what the Egyptians, as a democracy, can serve up.
    Best to let history be the judge, not us.

  13. Eric

    According to wikipedia, Egypt’s population in 2009 was about 80 million.

  14. Victor

    One can express respect for the courage of the formerly voiceless without endorsing every tactic that groups of the hundreds of thousands of citizens choose.

    The protests in Egypt have, thus far, certainly been nonviolent compared, for example, to the American Revolution. Just days before his death Martin Luther King was horrified to have demonstrators turn violent. Islam has a military hero, rather than a martyr, at the center of their faith so the relative lack of violence by untrained protesters is all the more remarkable.

    The natural law articulated in the phrase, “No taxation without representation” remains true. The simpler form of this law is, “Voicelessness leads to violence.” Just as the forced voicelessness of the US founders led Washington and company to engage in anti-British terrorism the (US subsidized) forced voicelessness of the people of the Middle East led to al-Qaeda and other forms of terrorism. The US became the target of al-Qaeda the old-fashioned way – we earned it.

    While one cannot know with certainty that the future in Egypt will be better than the past one can certainly hope and pray that this history of citizen voicelessness is coming to an end in the Middle East as it has in so many parts of the world. To wish for a stability that requires citizen voicelessness has proven to serve one’s interests only in the short-term.

    Again, one can respect the courage of rebels with a legitimate cause even if some of the tactics leave much to be desired.

  15. Eric

    Hi Tim Baer,
    Yes, courage can almost always be admired, but only for the right/ just cause, and if the majority support it.
    I have no admiration for the courage of the incredible fighting ability of the Waffen SS who fought their way into Russia. These troops honestly felt they were fighting to free the world of communism, a fight which Australia, Western Europe, and America and others took up after the Second World War.
    It should also be remembered that Mennonites, (at least one of which came from South America) fought or supplied the troops fighting in Russia.
    In the case of the American Revolution, it started as a protest against taxation, (therefore initially about profits and business not freedom — freedom later becoming the rallying cause). In the fight for representation the majority of American colonists agreed that change was needed and their courage is indeed to be admired though their methods may be seen as questionable to you.
    In the case of the Egyptians I have not yet seen a majority protest, (hopefully an election will prove me wrong). Some western media are saying that the reason the word has not got out and the majority of Egyptians have not got involved in the protests is because the State controls the television and therefore the nation’s perception of events. But, hey, what are all those satellite dishes on Egyptian houses doing? The Australian Prime Minister managed to use the media to advise Australians about the evacuation flights out of Egypt.
    So, for me, courage is to be applauded when the cause is just and the majority of people are supportive of it. Otherwise any mob could be seen as courageous — even the terrorists who now stalk our democracies. And if we remember correctly, that is how the British saw the rebellious American colonists, but as I said, the majority supported them and in the end and their cause was just

  16. Rikki

    Wow, didn’t Egypt’s revolution work out just dandy?-not!
    And how about South Africa’s secrets bill? – back to the old way of doing things – aparthied all over again.

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