February 3, 2011

The People Hold the Square

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Freedom — Tags: — Russ @ 4:23 am


On Wednesday the Egyptian government launched a coordinated, professionally organized assault on the people at Tahrir Square. Through an afternoon and night of street fighting, the people again rose to the moment and won the day. They beat back the thugs in several places, forced a stand-off at others, and held the Square.
The police in thug clothing were reduced to taking potshots from a highway overpass, since they were unable to take of hold a position in the Square. Pre-dawn, this gunfire often became severe, and at least five protestors have been killed. Protestors tried to fight their way to these high points, and may have driven the police mob off the 6th of October Bridge. There were reports that some army vehicles may be engaging in non-violent interference on behalf of the protestors, for example a tank blowing a smoke screen to obscure the line of sight for the murderous shooters.
Kicking off Thursday, and looking ahead to the next big call to protest on Friday (recall how the mosques served as post-prayer rallying points last Friday), I think there’s good reasons for optimism.
1. Most importantly, the people continue to overcome all obstacles. They continue to rise to every challenge. Faced with this thug assault, after initial confusion their response was not despair and panic but anger and vigorous response. Although when the thugs started throwing rocks and threatening further violence the demonstrators at first didn’t respond in kind, once it became clear their revolution was under existential assault the people fought back with ferocity and discipline. By classical military measure they won the battle since they hold the field. This in itself is a significant victory, since the mob must have expected to quickly panic them and drive them out.
The police thugs also took much of the high ground, namely the overpass and the roofs of buildings. They used firebombs as a terror weapon and arson tool. (The army has taken action to put out fires.) They’re on the roof of the Cairo Museum, and clearly hope to instigate its destruction. I don’t know if or when they’ll intentionally torch it, but this clumsy attempt to put blame on the demonstrators is obvious enough that even the Museum director (a government employee) has called for Mubarak to just Get Out to avert further destruction.
The people have responded here as well, surging to available rooftops themselves, from which they’re exchanged rocks and Molotov cocktails with neighboring roofs. The police have been setting up barricades on some side streets, while the protestors have set up barricades of their own as well as procuring portable shields.
Out of dozens of tactical skirmishes on this day of violent government escalation, the people have come out victorious. They hold the square and are on the attack at other points.
Once again, democracy shows its spirit, resolve, discipline, and unflagging ability to improvise a solution for every crisis. Far beyond the tactical victories in the fighting, this is yet another triumphant demonstration of the democratic idea in action under extreme pressure.
2. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt at all about the origin of the thugs. The same out-of-uniform police who spent several days vandalizing, looting, mugging, invading homes, and trying to spread terror, have now organized these mobs of paid thugs, organized their transportation (in buses), gave them standardized signs and posters, taught them standardized chants, and coordinated the exact moment (2:15 PM) for the mob to lurch from chanting slogans to a violent assault.
They bray the party line that the protestors are foreigners and/or foreign-inspired. They singled out reporters for assault. Mob members have admitted that they were paid a paltry sum for their depraved actions. Some said the equivalent of less than $10, others as much a $17.
Many thugs who were apprehended by the citizenry were found to be carrying police IDs, just like the looting scum of days past.
The fact that the mob is simply a gaggle of paid thugs means it’ll be hard for the regime to keep it continually in action. Accounts say it seemed to be diminishing overnight. No doubt the police will have to make another payout on Thursday to keep the hooligans in action. Maybe the price will have to go up.
I don’t know exactly what the plan was, but if we can assume Shock and Awe tactics, then we must think yesterday’s assault was as savage as they were capable of making it. They hoped to sow such sudden confusion and dismay as to generate panic, and from there stampede the democracy out of the square.
If that was the plan, it looks to have backfired. The people took the mob’s best shot and stood up to it. This can only increase their confidence. Meanwhile the police are forced to try again, but with greater forces and better organization. Can they do this? Such incremental, ad hoc escalation doesn’t favor the forces of professional thuggery. That’s democracy’s home turf. I’m not saying it’s impossible that the police can do this, only that it’s unlikely they preferred to try to do it this way. I think Wednesday was meant to do the trick, and it failed. Now the people ought to be stronger in their minds, and better prepared in their tactics and weaponry.
And yet another day has gone by for the rank and file soldiers to watch their fellow citizens under assault by the scum of the earth.
3. Lots of commentators have expressed confusion about the position of the army, but it’s clear enough. The generals want the protestors to disperse but don’t want to take responsibility for doing it themselves. That’s because they don’t want the domestic political opprobrium, and because they can’t be sure the troops would obey orders to fire on the citizens or otherwise deal harshly with them.
That’s why they’ve passively allowed Mubarak’s armed thugs to assault the people after having ensured that the people hadn’t brought their own weapons into the square. If all goes well, it’s win-win: The democracy disperses, while Mubarak and the police take the blame. The army gets only some residual criticism for standing by and doing nothing.
But this increases the danger arising from the troops themselves. Their orders are evidently to not interfere. But this must be hard on many of them, witnessing thugs attacking their fellow Egyptians often just yards away, possessing the firepower to easily stop them, yet being forbidden to do it. This must be profoundly demoralizing.
If so, it’s not surprising that there are reports of what sounds like individual initiative on the part of some soldiers. They can’t formally “interfere”, but they have plenty of less formal means of interference. I mentioned the tank’s smoke screen. Other tanks and APCs tried to interpose themselves between the thugs and the citizens, de facto setting up the barriers the people hadn’t had time or preparation to set up for themselves. Other reports claim that troops have fired into the air in such a manner that it was the Mubarak thugs who felt threatened and were frightened off.
I don’t know how true such accounts are or how widespread these phenomena are, but they evince a disgruntlement among the troops at their passively pro-Mubarak role. As I’ve mentioned several times, it was also a mistake to send in the troops among the people and then have them just sit there to witness this joyous democratic efflorescence, being invited constantly to join it. Most of them must want to join it.
So now the brinksmanship has to be, if the police are even able to escalate the fascist mob attacks (let alone reappear in uniform, the way other reports rumor they might), how far can they go with the violence and still enjoy the troops’ passive witness? I don’t know the answer, but I’m optimistic that there is a limit.
(Many people who have been celebrating the self-driven democracy for days had a regressive knee-jerk reaction yesterday. They were demanding: Why doesn’t the army act to protect the people?
I agree that this would be good, but the fact is the army isn’t going to do that so long as the generals maintain control of the rank and file. While they may eventually lose that control, for now the democracy is on its own just as it’s been from the start. So for the time being if the people are to be protected, they’ll need to protect themselves. In other words, they’ll have to continue doing exactly the same thing they’ve been doing from the start.
So it’s great to celebrate the democracy when it’s issuing political demands, organizing neighborhood watches, and cleaning the streets. But we also have to retain faith in it when it’s under violent attack.
Don’t lose faith now, just because the going’s getting tougher.) 
4. I’ve mentioned the intrepid political and psychological dynamic, that every escalation and show of arrogance on the part of the government has been met by escalation on the part of the people. (So antithetical to that of America’s cowardly and corrupted “progressives”, who start out meekly and then cave in the second there’s even a discouraging word, let alone escalation. What absolute shame they must be feeling these days.) This has been a vigorous feature of the democratic uprising from the start.
So how encouraging that this was the response yesterday as well. It’s a measure of how the thugs failed to cow the people that everywhere people were saying, “Before today we wanted Mubarak to just Get Out. Now we want to put him on trial.” Even Elbaradei said that.
So I regard that as a healthy sign.
So there’s my initial impressions from Wednesday. No doubt we’ll learn more today, just as we’ve been learning every day.


  1. Maybe I was right, that Mubarak shot his bolt and failed:


    Mubarak’s government has apologized for yesterday and is disclaiming responsibility for the thugs.

    Meanwhile the army is assertively interposing itself, and tanks have driven the gunmen off that overpass.

    The democracy of the square is declaring victory in the Battle Against the Thugs.

    Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    • Well, I hoped the “apology” was the government trying to cover its tracks and save face after a failed attack. But the fighting continues with Mubarak’s consent, so I don’t know why they bothered apologizing.

      Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  2. The Mubarak government will be toppled, and, when it is, those who take power will not forget that their demonstrations had been met with the resistance of American made Abrams tanks. They may also not forget that the supposedly so called, pro-democracy US Government threatened to cut off financial aid to the Palestinians if they ever dared to have a real election between anyone other than the USG’s approved candidates. The Iraq election was almost as much of a sham as was the US Presidential election. Egypt doesn’t need an American style democracy.

    George Bush claimed that the “Axis of Evil” was comprised of three countries: Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Perhaps the real Axis of Evil is comprised of three entities: the Wall Street bankers, US defense contractors and big oil companies. Those three entities, combined, are responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the untold destruction of many nations. Hopefully, the Egyptian government elected in the future, will recognize this, and will eschew the billions in bribes that has come, historically, from the real axis of evil via the US past, present and future taxpayers.

    Comment by black swan — February 3, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    • Right you are. As always, it boils down to corruption and greed.

      Democracy needs to find the key to vigilance against this. One of the original principles of the American Revolution was that concentrated power is by definition tyranny-seeking. Strictly speaking, a term like “corruption” would be redundant. Therefore, power must be kept as dispersed and as close to the soil as possible. To whatever extent it was necessary for the people to delegate power upward and allow it to concentrate they must remain vigilant that it keep within strictly defined limits. Citizenship must be an aggressive, proactive condition. Civic responsibility demands nothing less. Otherwise freedom is in imminent jeopardy and will inevitably be lost.

      That ideal of citizenship was one of many ideals of the Revolution that were disparaged and renounced in 1788.

      Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 8:05 am

  3. Can anyone clarify this sentence from an NYT piece?

    Mohamed ElBaradei, who was designated to negotiate with the government on behalf of the opposition, demanded on Wednesday that the army move in and protect the protesters.

    The first clause, specifically. He can’t be anything but self-designated, so far as I can tell. More elitist MSM framing.

    Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    • “on behalf of the opposition” tells the tale, I think. Clearly there’s no way millions of Egyptians standing in the streets of that country (“the opposition”) with, at best, intermittent telecommunications could have collectively nominated a leader. As far as I can tel, El-Baradei was “nominated” by the Western media.

      Comment by paper mac — February 3, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

      • Designated by the MSM. I guess therefore the reportage is technically true, like Hunter Thompson’s report about a rumor Muskie was on ibogaine treatments.

        “I reported that there was a rumor, which was true. I know because I started the rumor.”

        Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  4. The new Egyptian government will have to face this:

    6-month price percentage moves in some of the things people need to live with:

    . Cotton = +125.7%
    . Sugar = +82.6%
    . Corn = +59.0%
    . Coffee = +41.4%
    . Rice = +40.5%
    . Oats = +36.6%
    . Copper = +36.1%
    . Lumber = +33.8%
    . Oil = +25.1%

    Comment by black swan — February 3, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  5. The assault on the protestors was reprehensible and clearly demonstrates the illegitimacy of the security forces. You characterise the attack as “professionally organized”, and I think it was, to a degree, but I think it’s just as revealing of how off-guard the security forces were at the time the revolt began.

    The uniformed riot lines which were displayed on AJ in the early days were ragged and undisciplined, nothing like their equivalents in North America or China. The size of the crowd was obviously too large to effectively control, but I remain surprised that the most important US satrapy in the ME had such disorganized riot cops. The subsequent use of the police as ad-hoc firebomb brigades just compounds that impression. If those thugs on camels and horses in Tahrir, a number of whom were rapidly dismounted and beaten by the protestors there, were also police, they were pretty clearly almost outright untrained in crowd control.

    I say this because I would have expected much of the extensive security and military aid being supplied to Egypt to be directed into population-control and domestic security measures. Instead it seems it mostly went into the purchase of expensive hardware for what is now clearly an unreliable (from the regime’s perspective) conscript army. The police seem to live up to their reputation as violent thugs, murderers, kidnappers, torturers, but that’s about it. They appear to have low morale, low unit cohesion, and little training or experience that would prepare them for much more than intimidating a few locals at a time.

    If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the performance of the Egyptian security forces, I think it’s that if this kind of activity ever occurs here, it will be in the face of a significantly more formidable opponent on the street (and probably without the protection of the military). A G20-style police presence in Cairo probably wouldn’t have stopped the revolution from proceeding, but I’m betting it would have been significantly more bloody, particularly if the military was onside with the police.

    Comment by paper mac — February 3, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    • Your third paragraph expresses what I was thinking as I read the first two – “all that money for the budget must have been looted, while all those vaunted cadres must have been starved of training.”

      You may be right about the differing quality of Western police cadres, although part of the difference here is also the mettle of the protestors. Here we have the kind of people who not only apply for permits but then meekly abide by their insulting and unconstitutionally constrained limits. Not exactly the spirit that topples dictators.

      Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

      • Yeah, it’s hard to even apply the same term – protestor – to the people revolting in Egypt vs the people who passively get herded into cages at every major event in the West. Seems insulting to the Egyptians, really. If the Egyptians are protestors, I guess our lot are just mooks.

        Comment by paper mac — February 3, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

  6. From c. 8 PM Cairo time.


    Al Jazeera’s online producer in Cairo said: “The battle for downtown Cairo on Thursday has taken on an almost medieval quality, with protesters erecting makeshift barricades and building homemade catapults to launch rocks at each other.

    “Close-range combat ensued for several hours, with hand-to-hand combat near the barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. Both sides threw hundreds of rocks back and forth.”

    Pro-democracy protesters gradually pushed back Mubarak loyalists who had swarmed onto a nearby highway overpass where they had been pelting their rivals with objects.

    Our producer said: “The pro-democracy group began a slow advance onto the bridge, which had earlier been cleared of pro-Mubarak forces by an army tank.

    “The pro-democracy crowd briefly lost its high ground … but they regrouped, and their counterattack eventually pushed the pro-Mubarak group down to the Corniche, where they are now slowly retreating past the state television building.

    “The contrast between both sides’ tactics is striking: The pro-democracy protesters have organised themselves, building walls and seizing strategic locations; the pro-Mubarak crowd has mostly advanced in a mob, hurling rocks and then retreating under return fire.”

    That last paragraph is especially interesting.

    Comment by Russ — February 3, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    • It’s good to see they’re not hunkering down and settling into reacting, they’re keeping the initiative. I hope they’re able to take enough of the area surrounding Tahrir to make it an effective staging area. If the protestors become difficult enough to dislodge from that area, it seems much more likely they’ll be able to effectively organize groups to begin occupying vital infrastructure and the like.

      Comment by paper mac — February 3, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

      • I just got done writing about the calls for a march on the palace, and how that would mean taking the offensive from the Square.

        I’ve been curious about this, but although I saw a few scattered, vague mentions of strikes and factory shutdowns and occupation of vital infrastructure, apparently elsewhere than in Cairo, I’ve seen no specific details on anything like that. (It was the WSWS who mentioned such things without giving details.)

        The impression I get from both the MSM (including AJ) as well as anarchist, radical, and other sites is that it’s overwhelmingly a political protest only, although we have seen some rudimentary democratic structures.

        So I better try to find more specifics on whether or not there actually are strikes or factory occupations anywhere.

        Comment by Russ — February 4, 2011 @ 1:47 am

  7. Russ,

    Not sure if anyone has pointed this before, but if not, at the angry arab blog (linked below) you can find comments from protestors themselves, in their own words and translated into English, such as the following from a journalist activist named Hossam: “The heads of Arab dictators will roll over, one after the other. The road to Jerusalem passes thru the Arab capitals.”

    Also there is an inspiring post from someone named Khaled Saghiyyah, entitled “From Dictatorship to Madness”, with the following lines:

    “It’s not the first time that the Egyptian regime feeds on the blood of its people. It’s not the first time where violence is carried out against the Egyptians. The difference is that when the regime becomes naked, its violence becomes naked. Just as we moved from unfair electoral laws to electoral fraud and from economic exploitation to organized looting, we are moving from police uniform to thugs, horses, camels, sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails.”


    Comment by Frank Lavarre — February 3, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    • Thanks, Frank. I don’t think I linked the Angry Arab, but you’re right, he has lots of great stuff.

      The quote about naked violence is superb. This is a literal medievalism amid the actual feudal recrudescence of neoliberalism.

      For today it usually still looks so modern, even “futuristic” at times. But the Egyptian government is giving us a sneak preview of the true nature and goal they all have in store for us.

      Comment by Russ — February 4, 2011 @ 1:54 am

  8. Hate to sully these pages with this shit, but it’s worth reading anyway:


    The backbone of the story is almost entirely anonymously sourced, suggesting that this is mostly stenography. I presume the White House expects that this leaked position will be acceptable to most Americans and probably Westerners around the world. Of course, by now, after the wars of 9/11, everyone knows what the Americans mean by “free and fair elections”. A reporter friend of mine who works in Afghanistan wrote an article recently in which he mentioned that “democracy” is now a loan word for many Afghans, used as an epithet to describe the corruption and hypocrisy of the form of government inflicted upon that nation (the local phrases, in Dari – mardum salari, and Pashto – woles waki, both meaning “rule of the people”, retain their original meaning). Perhaps it will soon be so everywhere.

    Interesting to note the pushback from Mubarak’s people, although it’s not clear to me how much latitude he has- he seems to be getting squeezed from above and below at the same time.

    Overall, though, the main thing I’m getting from the US reaction to this is fear. You can smell it- the pleas for calm, the expressions of support for “reform” in crumbling protectorates. The wheels are coming off this thing faster than I imagined possible.

    Comment by paper mac — February 4, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    • You’re right about how confused the imperial onlookers seem.

      In my latest post I mentioned in passing the alleged new pressure from the US administration, but I think it’s a peripheral topic. The outlines of this US-brokered “solution” have been obvious for many days, from as soon as Suleiman was appointed.

      It’s only Mubarak’s intransigence, and perhaps Obama’s personal attachment to him, which have propped up this particular zombie. (Obama and his flunkeys, at least until yesterday, kept saying his name and implying he should stay until the election. That has to be the result of “dithering”, because however malevolent Obama is in intent, and however pleasant it is for him to hurt people by kicking down, as long as he doesn’t have to look at his handiwork, I’ve long had him pegged as the kind of coward who doesn’t have the guts to be ruthless toward people with names, even where his policy demands he should be.)

      I have no doubt at all that the establishments of both Egypt and the US would be happy to see him go, and have wanted that for days.

      Comment by Russ — February 4, 2011 @ 2:05 am

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