Egypt’s lessons for dictators and protestors

Right now it’s impossible to know which side will win in Egypt. Mubarak may hang on, though he’ll be weakened if he does and it now seems impossible that his son Gamal could stand for the presidency in September. The protesters might prevail too, although the nature of the regime that would follow is just as uncertain – it could be another strong man dictatorship, it could be a pluralistic democracy, it could be an Islamist state. In any case, what is clear is how effective and ineffective some of the different tactics have been on both sides.

A leaderless revolution, particularly the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early days of street protests, has undermined Mubarak’s usual strategy of raising the spectre of an Islamist takeover. There does seem to be a small group of young leaders orchestrating elements of the protests, but by and large it has been a bottom-up rather than top-down movement to date. In that sense it mirrors the Tunisian revolution of January 2011 far more than the Iran revolution of 1978 / 79.

There have been several attempts by the regime to intimidate the crowds by imposing curfews, buzzing Tahrir Square with military jets or withdrawing the police to allow thugs (some apparently state-sponsored) to loot at will. All of them have backfired. The crowds of protestors have shown remarkable organisational ability and adaptability in responding to the different tactics – quickly forming neighbourhood groups to run ad-hoc security checkpoints, jeering the passing jets and simply ignoring the curfews.

Shutting down Egypt’s phone and internet networks failed to prevent word getting around about the demonstrations. It might have made it harder for protestors to spread the message among each other, but arguable the effect on Mubarak’s regime could be even greater. By cutting the country’s internet connection with the world he also effectively cuts off Egyptian business links with the world. If the economy stops functioning then there is a greater chance that members of the elite and the military will step in to force Mubarak out.

Other dictators are still likely to copy the internet blackout strategy in the future, in the hope that it will both remove a key communication tool for protestors and restrict the flow of information out of the country. The admirable role played by Al Jazeera in relaying the events in Egypt to a wider public completely undermined the second of these aims. Al Jazeera played a similarly vital role in Tunisia in December and January so it can expect to be treated with greater hostility by other regimes in the future.

Mubarak’s refusal to make any real concessions to protestors has prevented the quick slide in his authority that Ben Ali (and other dictators before him) suffered from. Mubarak said he was prepared to open a dialogue with protestors in the early days of the protests, but gave no sign that he would offer anything to them. His replacement of his cabinet and appointment of vice-president Omar Suleiman and prime minister Ahmed Shafik were, if anything, signs of intransigence and a determination to strengthen his position by drawing senior military figures closer to him.

By being resolutely peaceful the demonstrators have given no room for Mubarak to claim that a heavy clamp-down has been needed to restore order. The protestors have also deliberately targeted the army and tried to build up a friendly rather than hostile atmosphere between them, known as the “hug a soldier” strategy. That appears to have helped diffuse the risk of violent escalation, particularly given the fact that rank and file soldiers are not particularly well paid and many probably sympathise with the protestors' hatred of the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps none of the above is as important as the ambiguous position of the military, which has allowed protestors to crowd onto the streets each day and ignore the curfews at will. Mubarak has drawn senior military figures closer to him in his reshaped cabinet, while a few individual officers have chanted along with the crowd in calling for Mubarak’s removal. The army hasn’t even bothered to remove graffiti sprayed onto its tanks which call for Mubarak to go. All this could be a deliberate strategy by the army of letting the protestors scream and shout until their energy runs out and they go home, despondent by the lack of progress in achieving their central demands; it could be because there are serious differences within the senior ranks of military officers over which side they should take; or it could be because the army simply wants to remain above the fray and has decided that it is up to Mubarak to either leave office or persuade the protestors to stop.

Persistence pays. Mubarak’s determination to hang on has been met with the equally strong persistence of demonstrators. With neither side willing to blink, a stand-off has emerged while both sides try to strengthen their position – in Mubarak’s case by putting army men around him; in the demonstrators case by trying to bring more people onto the street each day. Whoever wins the tussle for power will be able to point to their resolution and determination as key factors.