Thursday, February 03, 2011

Familiar Brutality in Tahrir Square

February 2, 2011 will long be fixed in memory, not just for the charge of whip-wielding horsemen and camel riders into the ranks of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but as the day that the Mubarak regime let loose thugs, policemen in mufti and pro-Mubarak enthusiasts to end the Tahrir demonstrations.  The thugs—"baltagiyya" (singular: "baltagi") are familiar bit players in the regime’s staging of elections and the suppression of demonstrations. [Etymology] The baltagi is paid 50 Egyptian pounds or so for his muscle, and his task is simple: strong-arm and bully people who challenge state authority.  What was exceptional about today was the scale and blatancy of the attacks on the heretofore-peaceful demonstrators, but Egyptians are quite familiar with this sort of behavior.  (Over the past decade Mubarak’s regime has had few Middle Eastern rivals for its coarse brutality, a fact that most U.S. officials chose to ignore.)
I have in my possession (provided by an Egyptian friend in Cairo) a document on the letterhead of the Interior Ministry.  The document is marked “secret” and is a “plan for broadening popular manifestations”, in other words pro-government demonstrators.  The two-page document lists strategies, including hiring baltagiyya, dispensing ammunition, tear gas and so on.
The attacks on the demonstrators at Tahrir would have three primary purposes: to counter the demonstrators’ narrative with voices in support of Mubarak; to break the will of the demonstrators, who have made their stand on one of the most famous public spaces in Egypt; and, to foment chaos, which would demonstrate that only with a strong hand may upheaval or “fitnah”.
One of the surreal moments came when state television, as well as officials at Tahrir, called upon the anti-Mubarak demonstrators to leave because of the “threat of violence” and the fact that “armed intruders” had entered the area, as though the army or other security elements was helpless to raise a hand to defend unarmed civilians.  Indeed, the army did look quite helpless and very complicit on February 2d, when soldiers stood by a watched while scores of Molotov cocktails were tossed by the baltagiyya.
If the game succeeds and the momentum of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators is broken, then Mubarak remains president until September as he vowed in his speech.  This allows time for the government to engineer elections.  It is noteworthy that while Mubarak promised that he did not intend to run in September, he said nothing about his son Gamal, who Mubarak loyalists have been positioning to ascend to the father's throne.
The key player remains the army, which has generally avoided using force against the demonstrators, but has done little to stop the developing clashes.  The army’s hand in Egyptian politics is hard to document because it is difficult and dangerous to research, and the generals prefer to remain in the shadows.  Without the assent of the generals, any attempt to move beyond Mubarak is going to be very risky, and probably impossible.
There are other more pressing risks involving life and death.  Early in the morning hours of February 3, automatic weapons volleys were fired into Tahrir (APHRA, a human rights group, stated the gunfire began at 3:52, to be precise). Reports indicate that at least six people died.   61 Egyptian groups concerned with human rights called for action to save Egyptian young people threatened with violence in Tahrir. 
With the anti-Mubarak collation calling for a massive demonstration on February 4, Friday may be truly a day of decision, perhaps especially for the army.  As the day begins on February 3rd in Cairo, the more immediate question is whether the Tahrir demonstrators will be able to hold their ground until Friday.

[Robert Springborg, who I know and respect, offers an bleaker analysis and suggests that the back of the protest has already been broken.  I think his assessment is premature, but we will know soon enough.]

[Excellent CNN interview with Emad Shahin (thanks to J).]

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