Egyptian Military Drives Out Pro-Mubarak Thugs from Tahrir Square

Screenshot showing placement of military around Tahrir Square at 4:48 p.m. Cairo time today. (source: Al Jazeera via

The gunfire and deaths in Tahrir Square yesterday, which included fresh gunfire in the morning, killing an unspecified number of people, is considered a textbook Hosni Mubarak action.

The strategy of sending in the thugs after making half-hearted promises was vintage Mubarak. The tactic is familiar to political observers, for he’s employed the same approach in national elections — assuring Western allies of fair polls and instead rounding up opposition candidates and dispatching foot soldiers to rough up their supporters.

Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at Georgetown University, said Mubarak has used such tactics for years to break up anti-government demonstrations and to prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots […]

At least since the end of 2005, the regime has employed thugs and members of the security services dressed in civilian clothes against protesters and during election time, said Shehata, who spent months in Egypt studying the conduct of the 2005 parliamentary polls and the 2006 presidential contest. At a number of these protests, the regime operatives have had police-issued truncheons […]

“Mubarak is saying a big ‘F you’ to the United States and a big ‘F you’ to the Egyptian people, unfortunately,” said Amr Shalakany, a professor at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. “He’s saying, ‘You want me to leave? I will not leave. You will not intervene in my domestic affairs. And I will kill my people.'”

Indeed, many of the pro-government supporters who were captured by the protesters had police identification on them. Juan Cole’s description of them as Mubarak’s Basij is appropriate.

The major question that everyone had was the position of the military. The pessimistic take of their refusal to intervene in the clashes yesterday was that they implicitly supported the action, as Daniel Larison says here.

The military has not directly participated in the crackdown, which preserves the appearance that the military was not involved in attacking the protesters and keeps the military from being split, but it has stood by while Mubarak’s goons target the protesters. As the new cabinet is filled with figures representing the interests of the military, this ought to have been clear to all a few days ago. If Mubarak is on the way out after the next election, Suleiman will be taking over for him. In Tunisia the uprising prompted a “soft” coup against Ben Ali, and Ben Ali could not stay so long as the military was unwilling to use force to defend his hold on power. As quite a few people expected earlier this month, the alignment of interests between the military and Mubarak mattered more than the outrage and persistence of the protesters. Instead of a “soft” coup approved by the military, there won’t be any sort of coup, but an organized (though perhaps not all that “orderly”) transition from one military-backed strongman to another.

Robert Springborg is even more blunt, saying that the chance for democracy in Egypt is lost.

That may be a bit premature. The military did clear away the pro-government protesters today, which of course is quite a bit late given the damage done. The protesters still support the military, shouting slogans like “the army and the people hand in hand.” The newly appointed Prime Minister, Ahmad Shafiq, himself a retired general, had to go out and deliver a strange apology, which didn’t explicitly say that the government was responsible for the fighting, but that they were sorry anyway. He ordered an “investigation” into the deaths of the protesters, which is ridiculous. Shafiq also rejected any talk of Mubarak leaving power immediately, saying that “We should not humiliate ourselves. We are being watched by the whole world.” That witness is the only reason he so much as apologized. [cont’d.]

Currently, pro-goverment thugs have melted away from the square, and the protesters have held it. Remember that tomorrow is supposed to be the big day of action, with a march to the Presidential palace. The size of the crowds will be crucial.

Springborg’s point is that the military will doubtlessly engineer the transition from Mubarak, and that a military general will succeed him. That could be true; they still have the popularity among the people despite standing by for a whole day before intervening in the battle for Tahrir Square. But tomorrow’s march on the palace could separate that goodwill.

UPDATE: I think Sam Stein gets this right about Obama’s Restraint Doctrine. He seems very sensitive to the charge of meddling in the affairs of another country, at least in this case. Restraint could also be seen as confusion, incidentally.

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