Every time I go to the Rabaa sit-in [in Cairo] I think that it would be an almost impossible task to clear the people crammed into it; surely not even the Interior Ministry and armed forces would want to take on that task, not because they are concerned about loss of life but because of the logistical difficulty, and the political fallout internationally (the July 26 protests demonstrated that the anti-terrorism crowd seem to care about what the international community thinks).
So I did some cursory reading (Wikipedia, what else) on how Tiananmen Square was cleared of the pro-democracy protesters on June 4 1989 and so far there have been close parallels between the events that led up to that clearing, and events in Egypt.
June 1: the state Politburo issued a report to its members in which protesters were described as “terrorists and counterrevolutionaries”. A state security report said talked about American influence on the protest movement, and said that American forces had intervened in the student movement with the objective of overthrowing the Community Party.
June 2: newspapers began publishing articles calling for protesters to leave the square. State-run newspapers also reported that day that troops were positioned in ten key areas in Beijing.
June 3: the politburo decided that the dispersal of protesters would begin at 9 p.m. and must end by 6 a.m.
State-run television warned residents to stay indoors (but they didn’t because unlike here, the residents were with the student protesters).
At 10 p.m. an army division used live ammo against protesters outside the square as their advance proceeded. APCS were used to ram through barricades.
The first APCs reached the Square at 12.15 a.m.
At 1.30 a.m. army soldiers arrived at the north and south ends of the Square and sealed if off from reinforcements of students and residents, killing more protesters
At 4 a.m. the Square’s lights were turned off and government loudspeakers announced that, “Clearance of the Square begins now. We agree with students’ request to clear the Square.”
Light went back on at 4.30 a.m. Soldiers advanced and stopped 10 metres from students. Soldiers took aim with machines guns while in the prone position. Behind them soldiers stood with assault rifles and behind that row were tanks and APCs.
Students began withdrawing.
Just after 6 a.m. tanks pursued students attempting to vacate the Square. One drove through the crowd, killing 11.
Later in the evening thousands of civilians tried to re-enter the square. Many were parents of protesters. Troops opened fire. Dozens of civilians were shot in the back.
Conservative estimates put the death toll at 300 civilians.
Today, the Interior Minister gave a press conference in which he said that police, the army and the public prosecution office were coordinating on the best time to clear the square. He said that the Interior Ministry is waiting for a decision from the Public Prosecution Office on complaints filed against the Nahda and Rabaa sit-ins from residents of the areas in which these sit-ins are being held. The Ministry appears to be seeking to give the dispersal legitimacy via a court decision that the sit-ins are a public nuisance.
I find it odd that it is doing this, since the Minister also (correctly) said that there have been incidents of torture and even killings in the sit-ins. Surely these crimes are more serious than disturbance caused to residents, and more than enough on their own to justify that the Ministry acts. For this reason I think this waiting for Public Prosecution Office decisions is probably bollocks. Either a smoke screen of some kind or another installment in this public mandate nonsense made popular by the army.
It seems more and more likely that security bodies will act in the next few days. Yesterday night’s violence on Nasr Road demonstrates that they are incapable of acting with restraint or with any kind of sensible plan. That they are taking on a massive civilian sit-in spells disaster. But just for the record, I would like to suggest that there are ways to minimise the deaths and injuries so that we do not replicate what happened in Tiananmen Square.
1. If the pro-Morsys fail to see that they are backing a losing horse and refuse to withdraw (just like Tahrir Square protesters refused to withdraw from many of their sit-ins) then they should at least ensure that children and people who are physically unable to escape/cope with the attack leave the area.
2. Hospitals surrounding the area must be on red alert. Extra blood supplies must be collected in advance. Field hospitals should be established nearby the two sit-ins.
3. The security forces will probably attack at night, when there are fewer cameras but more protesters. This automatically ensures more blood. The Nahda protest is virtually empty during the day and in my opinion could be controlled with much less force than is required at night. Rabaa is almost always full and there is no good time to attempt to disperse it.
4. Independent journalists have seen weapons in the Nahda sit-in. It seems unlikely that one sit-in has weapons but the other doesn’t. BBC journalists saw a very basic weapon used on the pro Morsy side yesterday but the pro Morsy death toll (estimates range between 50 – 100) compared to the zero reported deaths on the police side demonstrates that the pro Morsys either did not have weapons last night or were unwilling to use them against the police (it’s a shame they didn’t show such restraint with the civilian residents of Giza, Alexandria and Manial).
5. When dealing with armed opponents the police of course has the right to use force to defend itself. If the police cared about international standards, it would use only enough force required for self-defence or to control the situation. Yesterday night they started with teargas and quickly escalated to bullets when trying to stop some Pro Morsys blocking the October Bridge. The death toll indicates that regardless of how the clashes started, the police did not use reasonable force.
6. Security bodies must anticipate and plan for the thousands of frightened, angry protesters who will be forced out of Rabaa, possibly in the dark of night, surrounded by residents who for three weeks have been slowly fuming about their presence. This is in addition to the general public at large, who since June 30 have been told that these protesters are terrorists. How will they protect these protesters from reprisals?
7. The Armed Forces must not use its vehicles as weapons. If there is a risk that its soldiers will “panic” and in the face of resistance run protesters over with APCs as happened at Maspero then it is under a duty not to take these vehicles anywhere near areas of civilian conflict until its soldiers man up and/or are trained properly in the art of dealing with large, angry crowds.
8. The police must not employ civilians to attack other civilians. Yesterday a video shows young men in civilian clothing throwing stones and hanging around uniformed officers as they shot at Pro Morsys. Often the worst brutality happens when one side of civilians apprehends another civilian from the other side (the torture in Nahda demonstrates this). Must it also be stated that using civilians as police is illegal and immoral?
9. Detainees must not be brutalised. Arrests should in any case be kept in a minimum and reserved for only the most serious acts (using firearms, physical assault etc).
10. Journalists and NGOs should be coming up with a plan to document the dispersal, seeking out vantage points where they can see but are safe. The security forces and other civilians should leave them alone to do their job.
I hope that anyone who protested yesterday against terrorism is able to differentiate between acts of terrorism, and violence used in response to an attack by security bodies. I hope also they realise that Egypt’s security bodies have never demonstrated any ability to deal with civilian protesters in a way that protects life and minimises casualties, and that in “mandating” security bodies to deal with the “terrorists” they sanctioned arbitrary and excessive use of force.
The fallout from arbitrary and excessive use of force against a group like the Muslim Brotherhood will not be confined to them. But yesterday’s protesters are not responsible for the violence that is about to take place because the idea of them giving a mandate to the army or security bodies is of course ridiculous nonsense. Egypt’s security bodies act with complete disregard for what citizens want and they care no more about the wishes of the people who took to the streets yesterday in support of the army than they do about those in Rabaa and Nahda.