After the hope came the despair: yesterday in Cairo, groups of ‘pro-government’ demonstrators appeared on the scene, launching themselves into uncompromising battle with thousands of previously peaceful protesters. They came armed to the teeth, blockading Tahrir Square with tanks and burned trucks and hurling Molotov cocktails at crowds. Once the initial wave had taken protesters by surprise, horses and camels were to follow; charging indiscriminately through the square, their riders carried rocks and blades. Make no mistake, this was not the work of a movement emerging organically in response to the upheaval of the past 8 days. What we saw in Tahrir Square was a state-orchestrated onslaught, the last roll of the dice by a seemingly desperate regime. The fighting raged through the night, leaving more than 1000 injured and several dead from gunshot wounds. These figures have risen steadily as violence continued today.
Despite denials from Egypt’s Prime Minister that these brutal scenes were not state orchestrated, the evidence suggests otherwise. A historical precedent certainly exists: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has long used a ‘bussing’ strategy to drum up support when it needed it most. This has been the case both at election time and during periods of social unrest as the regime have instructed large groups to travel from offices and factories into the cities in return for payment. There are stories of young men being sent out by their bosses to demonstrate for Mubarak or face losing their jobs. Many would be under instructions to unleash a wave of violence on those they had been mobilised against, earning them them the name, ‘beltagiya’ (thugs). This has undoubtedly been the situation over the past two days as well. In a country where more than 20% live below the poverty line, it seems that any remaining support for Mubarak is motivated by material interest rather than conviction. More troublingly, perhaps, it has been reported that riot police have been dispatched in plain clothes to orchestrate violence against the protesters and forcing the army to intervene. Stories from Tahrir Square have been spreading thick and fast across Twitter with many accounts carrying photographs of the ID cards of the captured beltagiya. It will be no suprise that these have often revealed their true identities as policemen or party members.
The targets would also suggest a degree of regime involvement. The day’s most high profile casualties have been international journalists. It seems there has been a systematic attempt to hunt down those people who have been relaying news of the protests to the world. Nearly every news organisation has suffered, from Al Jazeera and the BBC to Fox News and The Washington Post (for a full list of the journalists involved, click here). Western-sponsored human rights organisations have also found themselves under sustained attack. The offices of two NGOs supported by Oxfam have been attacked today with several staff members arrested by the Military Police. Elsewhere, scores of other organisations have come under fire. Once again, this crackdown is consistent with regime policy over the last decade. As a general rule, the Egyptian government has tended to over-regulate NGOs following their emergence in the late 1980s as alternative forums for political dissent. In recent years, a series of increasingly draconian laws has been passed, slowly but surely suffocating their room to manouevre.
That the regime has cracked down now – albeit indirectly – should come as no surprise. What is unusual is that the regime tolerated such levels of unrest for nearly a week. The tactics are far from new. As Issandr El Amrani writes today: ‘All the things happening now–the use of orchestrated, para-state violence; the depicting of dissidents and journalists as spys and traitors; terrifying the population so as to make it a choice between, as the president said, “chaos and stability”–are tools the regime has used many times before.’ The move bears all the hallmarks of intelligence chief and Vice President Omar Suleiman, a skilled political operator who has long been associated with the regime’s inner workings. Writing in The Guardian, Simon Tisdall has predicted that Suleiman and Mubarak may yet have more cards to play as they foment a backlash and seek to regain control. As the regime makes increasingly assertive gestures in an attempt to regain control of the streets, this is a worrying and very real possibility.
In the face of such brutality, the protesters in Tahrir Square have held their ground for 2 days now, driving back wave after wave of state-orchestrated violence. According to Ahmed Shafiq, tomorrow protests will be different but it is impossible to tell whether this will be the case. Whatever happens on the streets of Cairo tomorrow, we must not forget the identity of the real force behind this so-called ‘counter-revolutionary’ backlash. As it becomes harder for the regime to hide their bloodied conscience, international opinion is turning. Tomorrow, the whole world must have their eyes on Egypt.