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February 05, 2011


Tentatively offered: I believe that crowd control is skilled work, and armies aren't trained to do it.

It may not be irresponsible for the army to hold back from trying to do crowd control-- their weapons and training are such that they could reasonably be concerned that they'd make the situation worse rather than better.

Isn't keeping armed and hostile people out of an unarmed crowd more along the lines of border control? Seems to me that an army should be good at that.

Armies are generally trained to identify armed people and neutralize them, rather than simply keep them separated. You seem to be suggesting that the army should be taking on some police functions. I'm not sure how the Egyptian armed forces is structures, but military policing is actually a separate branch with separate training faciliities and a separate career path.

This LGM post by Charli Carpenter is also related to the question of where the Egyptian military stands and why.

A couple of thoughts about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

They do not appear to be driving the current events. Rather, they seem to be scrambling to catch up to events that they as little anticipated as most Western intelligence agencies.

Whatever their origins or past, they do not appear to currently be focused on making the current revolution into an Islamist putsch. The comments above from al-Bayoumi appear to be right in sync with what the rest of the Brotherhood is saying. More to the point, they appear to be in sync with what the Brotherhood is doing.

One might reasonably expect that Egyptian Coptic Christians would know, far better than commentators half a world away, how big a threat the revolution poses to them. Do we see them supporting Mubarak, as a bulwark against Muslim attacks? No, we see Copts surrounding Muslims at prayer time, so that they can pray unharassed by "pro-Mubarak forces" -- and then we see Muslims surrounding them while they hold mass. It's enough to make one wonder what the real source of recent attacks on Coptic churches was.

Japonicus, I'm not sure it's that simple.

Since I wrote this post, I came across this post written by a student in Cairo, describing some of the events of the last two weeks. He agrees that the army, which is very popular, could not have acted against people; however, I'm not who he is calling 'security forces'. However, it's clear from his description of events that CNN and Al Jazeera may have been missing some of the story:

...Mubarak was at a loss. The troops could not possibly shoot people. That would not only destroy the army's reputation, but more importantly the troops practically could not do it. These guys after all were not trained for this. They do not have rubber bullets or tear gas. They only have live ammunition and tanks and the thought of actually using them in this situation was never an option. To the surprise of the regime, people just celebrated the army's arrival and started dancing in the streets defying the curfew. More importantly something else was happening as well. The looting was starting.

The decision to withdraw the security forces was a natural decision. First they were utterly exhausted and needed the rest to regroup. Secondly, as the security forces had become the symbol of the regime's oppression their withdrawal was seen as necessary to calm things. Thirdly and most importantly, in the protocol of operations there could not possibly be two forces with arms in the same street receiving orders from two different structures of command. Even with the best of coordination, a disaster is bound to happen.

What was not calculated however is the fact that suddenly a vacuum was created. The security forces were withdrawn and the army was not deployed yet. In this gap an opportunity presented itself for everyone. The scenes were unbelievable. First there was massive anger vented at symbols of state oppression such as the ruling party's headquarters. More drastically, in what can only be described as systematic targeting, police stations everywhere were attacked. Every police station in Cairo was looted, the weapons in them stolen and then burned. At the same time, massive looting was taking place. Even the Egyptian Museum, which hosts some of the world's greatest heritage, was not spared.

Saturday was indescribable. Nothing that I write can describe the utter state of lawlessness that prevailed. Every Egyptian prison was attacked by organized groups trying to free the prisoners inside. In the case of the prisons holding regular criminals this was done by their families and friends. In the case of the prisons with the political prisoners this was done by the Islamists. Bulldozers were used in those attacks and the weapons available from the looting of police stations were available. Nearly all the prisons fell. The prison forces simply could not deal with such an onslaught and no reinforcements were available. Nearly every terrorist held in the Egyptian prisons from those that bombed the Alexandria Church less than a month ago to the Murderer of Anwar El Sadat was freed, the later reportedly being arrested again tonight.

On the streets of Cairo it was the scene of a jungle. With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss at how to deal with it, it was the golden opportunity for everyone. In a city that is surrounded with slums, thousands of thieves fell on their neighboring richer districts. People were robbed in broad daylight, houses were invaded, and stores looted and burned. Egypt had suddenly fallen back to the State of Nature. Panicking, people started grabbing whatever weapon they could find and forming groups to protect their houses. As the day progressed the street defense committees became more organized. Every building had its men standing in front of it with everything they could find from personal guns, knives to sticks. Women started preparing Molotov bombs using alcohol bottles. Street committees started coordinating themselves. Every major crossroad had now groups of citizens stopping all passing cars checking their ID cards and searching the cars for weapons. Machine guns were in high demand and were sold in the streets.

I do not aim to turn this into a personal story, but those people are my friends and family. It is a personal story to me. My neighbors were all stationed in my father-in-law's house with men on the roof to lookout for possible attackers. A friend of mine was shot at by a gang of thieves and another actually killed one of them to defend his house and wife. Another friend's brother arrested 37 thieves that day. The army's only role in all of this was to pass by each area to pick up the arrested thieves. Army officers informed the street committees that anyone with an illegal weapon should not worry and should use it. Any death of one of the thieves would not be punished....

Fiddler, I certainly don't think it is simple. If I misunderstood what you were getting at with your comment, my apologies. I took it to mean 'why isn't the army doing something?' I highlight a line of your quote

With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss at how to deal with it, it was the golden opportunity for everyone.

Armies are good at locking things down, which is why you get martial law. But in this case, martial law is a big problem because it would look like the government is trying to silence the protests. I took you as wondering why the army doesn't do something, which sounds like having the army separating the bad actors from the good, and I'd emphasize that this is not what an army is good at doing.

About what the 'army' is saying, I'm not sure how we can take that as telling us something about what 'the army' is doing. Usually, when we discuss the participation of armed forces in these sorts of things, we can talk about specific units that were called up and given orders. I haven't seen that, so I don't know if this is a lacuna in the reporting or if there have been no special orders issued.

My impression is that the 'security forces' are distinct from the army, and the point your quote makes, that having two different armed groups with different command structures is the recipe for disaster.

I'm more than a little suspicious of that alternative account provided by fiddler. How does this guy know what Mubarak was thinking or why the security forces were withdrawn and how does he know who attacked the police stations and so on? I'm picturing myself in that situation--how would I know all that?

It sounds rather like the account of someone who despises democracy, approves of Mubarak, sympathizes with his dilemma (if one wants to call it that) and is spinning the entire story to make it seem like the regime is well-intentioned, but mishandled things so that chaos and insecurity have broken out. ( I'm not surprised there are people like that. I once knew a person from Zaire who defended Mobutu.) There is nothing bad said about the security forces and nothing is mentioned of the pro-Mubarak thugs who attacked reporters and demonstrators and all the emphasis is on the chaos and insecurity caused. The writer predicts (with a little bit of relish, I think) that in a couple of days the Egyptian people will be begging the army to shoot the demonstrators. He thinks Egyptians aren't ready for democracy because they believed a stupid story about Israelis planting killer sharks a few months ago. (Yeah, Egyptians are unique in their stupidity. Thank God American voters never fall for moronic conspiracy theories, whether propagated by cranks or by the government.)

"alternative account provided by fiddler. "

That should read "the alternative account linked to by fiddler".

It's interesting to read the comments underneath that "American Thinker" piece by Sam Tadros (the Egyptian author of the article fiddler linked to). Most of the commenters there skew a bit to the right, to put it mildly. Some think Obama sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood. Another says that moderate Muslim means the same as moderate Nazi. One cites Glenn Beck. That's one interesting venue that this young Egyptian chose to publish his observations.

One commenter at the bottom (when I looked at the page) says that Tadros is an intern at the American Enterprise Institute and provides a link to someone by that name who was apparently associated with them in 2007.


There is another side to the ongoing revolution in Egypt, which is the daily life of those people sitting in on Tahrir Square. For the past 12 days, they have remained on the square, eating, drinking, chanting, cheering - simply living there day and night. Life here has its own rhythm now, and the spirit on diplay is of a mini Utopia.
Mornings begin with physical exercises while chanting “Down down Mubarak

Japonicus, I had had the strong impression from news broadcasts that the army had been surrounding Tahrir Square, so that the armed thugs had to walk through them in order to get to the protesters. I don't believe that it would have been out of order for the military to stop people who were visibly armed and prevent them from going in among unarmed people. It's a commonsense thing, like not yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. Clearly, that didn't happen.

I'm also not necessarily sympathethic to Tadros's views, but that link was the only one I found that provided some context from an on-the-ground Egyptian viewpoint as well as narrative of some of the events. Television cameras can only do so much, especially when reporters are being assaulted or jailed simply for being present, and every video needs translation and interpretation and context -- not just who is speaking or yelling or shooting but why and what resulted from this. It's difficult to get that from this side of the Atlantic pond, in a different language.

Tadros isn't omniscient; there's no way to know where he's getting his numbers for crowd estimation, for instance. It appears that the security forces he mentions are the riot police who disappeared from the streets for several days but are now back and actively suppressing protest. Hmm. Perhaps the military in the square recognized the armed plainclothes thugs as police and did not stop them for that reason.

This Al-Jazzera story has this

In a statement on Monday the army said "freedom of expression" was guaranteed to all citizens using peaceful means.

"To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people," stress that "they have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people," said the statement.

It was the first such explicit confirmation by the army that it would not fire at demonstrators who have taken to the streets of Egypt and comes a day before Tuesday's "march of millions".

"The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and well-being. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.

"Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody." the army statement said.

It urged people not to resort to acts of sabotage that violate security and destroy public and private property. It warned that it would not allow outlaws to loot, attack and "terrorise citizens".

I would hesitate to say things are 'commonsense' when you aren't there. The army seems to have taken a very hands off approach. You seem to think that they should have set up a early cordon around the protestors and stopped armed men coming in. What happens if the cordon is interpreted preparation for some sort of round-up? How are the types of actions that an army would engage in to be interpreted?

Earlier in the protests, it was suggested that the army was attempting a 'soft coup', in which any active participation by the army would be taken as proof. Other stories have the military taking an active part in detaining foreign journalists. I'm not saying they weren't, but the possibility for a confirmation bias here is rather large. Still other stories suggest that the army has had a stabilizing effect and this news clip shows the military separating the two camps and shows arrested (presumably) pro-Mubarak protesters and then has discussion from various points of view and one commenter on the clip (Richard Weitz) points out that the officer corps may be divided in its loyalties, so taking actions that would definitely favor one side or the other would probably be avoided, which seems to explain much of the lack of action. I suppose there are a lot of scenarios possible, but I feel a lot less confident than you about assuming who the military 'recognizes' and gives sanction to. And if there is active measure to suppress the protest, it is certainly belied by the fact that there are more people in Tahir Square now than before.

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