Mubarak’s Basij

On Wednesday, the Mubarak regime showed its fangs, mounting a massive and violent repressive attack on the peaceful crowds in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. People worrying about Egypt becoming like Iran (scroll down) should worry about Egypt already being way too much like Iran as it is. That is, Hillary Clinton and others expressed anxiety in public about increasing militarization of the Iranian regime and use of military and paramilitaries to repress popular protests. But Egypt is far more militarized and now is using exactly the same tactics.

The outlines of Hosni Mubarak’s efforts to maintain regime stability and continuity have now become clear. In response to the mass demonstrations of the past week, he has done the following:

1. Late last week, he first tried to use the uniformed police and secret police to repress the crowds, killing perhaps 200-300 and wounding hundreds.

2. This effort failed to quell the protests, and the police were then withdrawn altogether, leaving the country defenseless before gangs of burglars and other criminal elements (some of which may have been composed of secret police or paid informers). The public dealt with this threat of lawlessness by organizing self-defense neighborhood patrols, and continued to refuse to stop demonstrating.

3. Mubarak appointed military intelligence ogre Omar Suleiman vice president. Suleiman had orchestrated the destruction of the Muslim radical movement of the 1990s, but he clearly was being groomed now as a possible successor to Mubarak and his crowd-control expertise would now be used not against al-Qaeda affiliates but against Egyptian civil society.

4. Mubarak mobilized the army to keep a semblance of order, but failed to convince the regular army officers to intervene against the protesters, with army chief of staff Sami Anan announcing late Monday that he would not order the troops to use force against the demonstrators.

5. When the protests continued Tuesday, Mubarak came on television and announced that he would not run for yet another term and would step down in September. His refusal to step down immediately and his other maneuvers indicated his determination, and probably that of a significant section of the officer corps, to maintain the military dictatorship in Egypt, but to attempt to placate the public with an offer to switch out one dictator for a new one (Omar Suleiman, likely).

6. When this pledge of transition to a new military dictator did not, predictably enough, placate the public either, Mubarak on Wednesday sent several thousand secret police and paid enforcers in civilian clothing into Tahrir Square to attack the protesters with stones, knouts, and molotov cocktails, in hopes of transforming a sympathetic peaceful crowd into a menacing violent mob. This strategy is similar to the one used in summer of 2009 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to raise the cost of protesting in the streets of Tehran, when they sent in basij (volunteer pro-regime militias). Used consistently and brutally, this show of force can raise the cost of urban protesting and gradually thin out the crowds.

Note that this step number 6 required that the army agree to remain neutral and not to actively protect the crowds. The secret police goons were allowed through army checkpoints with their staves, and some even rode through on horses and camels. Aljazeera English’s correspondent suggests that the military was willing to allow the protests to the point where Mubarak would agree to stand down, but the army wants the crowd to accept that concession and go home now.

Aljazeera English has video

Aljazeera English live feed here

Posted in Egypt | 32 Responses | Print |

32 Responses

  1. Neo-repression, lets call it. When an autocracy is cunning enough to send in ringers and the other things observed. Modern autocracies rarely give themselves away so clearly as they did in the good ‘ole days.

    The governmental actions unfolding are likely to have been on the shelve and ready to go for some time. Notice how the Egyptian internet presence was designed to be unplugged domestically within minutes, while leaving it intact as a conduit for other countries in the region.

    The upshot is evidently that Egyptians can count on a series of countermoves already in-place to put them back in theirs. When push comes shove it will be time for the people to do what it takes, and then we’ll see how much the people really want to do without their dictatorship. The government may prove itself illegitimate in this way, but that simply wouldn’t matter to them.

  2. Astute analysis and reasonable analogy. However, do you really mean 200-300 killed, in point #1? This may well be the case i just have no idea where those figures are from or why ppl wouldn’t have been far more outspoken about such a number of deaths. … Maybe i missed something …

  3. Who is Omar Suleiman?

    link to

    link to

    “Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman … Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al-Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks … To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib — and he did, with a vicious karate kick.”

  4. The military held back, gaining credibility with the protesters, and now they want to use that credibility to quell the protests. And I will give you good odds this was the plan all along, and the Obama administration is in on it.

      • I don’t think that constitutes a plausible plan. We already know of army officers who have openly declared their allegiance to the protesters. An attempted bloodbath would probably be the trigger for a civil war.

        Sure, the regime could well win such a civil war, but still, not a remotely reasonable plan. Enough civil war and anyone ambitious starts realizing he has a chance to be the new dictator, foreign neighbors start moving in, and pretty soon the whole region is aflame.

  5. The Basij is formed around an ideology and is composed of volunteers. Nearly every city and town has this volunteer program installed.

    What ideology and program do these pro-Mubarak fellows adhere to? My guess is that most of them were actually policemen wearing their civvies.

    Iran’s cadre of policemen (NAJA) were never withdrawn as was done in Egypt and they never appeared later in their civvies.

    If you want to put forward an analogy for Iran’s crowd control efforts in 2009, perhaps a better comparison would be Chicago in 1968 or Seattle in 1999.

  6. The coming hours could determine whether embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s opponents and particularly the ultras, fanatic soccer fans of rival Cairo clubs Al Ahly and Al Zamalek, have the wherewithal to fight the apparently trained pro-Mubarak forces.

    The ultras are one of the few, if not the only group among Mubarak’s opponents, that not only have an organization but are battle-hardened street fighters as opponents and supporters of Mubarak gear up for a major confrontation in downtown Cairo.

    link to

  7. MG beat me to it. The army today showed worrisome duplicity. The protesters have to force the army to take sides or they will lose. I know, it’s easy for me to say this. I am not the one risking my life. But I am very worried that time is not on the side of the protesters.

    Obama’s playing the same role as the army: deceiving words about the need for change to placate the public, while having Wisner reassure the army that a few cosmetic changes will be enough to keep their $1.5b allowance.

    I hope I am wrong because this is sickening.

  8. 1 or 2 killed in last year protests in Iran and now over 200 were killed by our friend Mubarak (not a dictator according to our officials)


  9. Though everyone one is watching the military very closely in all of this, I’ve heard very little in the expert coverage about the internal state of the military at this critical moment. Perhaps this is because no one knows. Are the usual command structures still in place? Are orders being given, successfully communicated down the line, and obeyed by the rank-and-file? Today’s scenes of somewhat overwhelmed looking soldiers standing idly by while the regime supporters closed on the demonstrators begs a lot of questions. Were they following explicit directives not to push back the Mubarak thugs, and thereby tacitly siding with the regime? Or are they genuinely confused or incapacitated? Is there evidence of any factionalism within the army? Breaks in chains of command? Orders not being followed? etc…

    • Egyptian military somewhat opaque, but the army pretty clearly was ordered to stand aside and let the Mubarak goons attack the protesters.

      • Yep and stand down they did. They are owned by Amerika so will do what ever the us govt wants. How sad that the citizens of this nation held out their arms in peace to the army to only have them cut off. This will be over by Friday but not what millions around the world hope for. Just more of that hopey wishy feel good brought to you by the us govt.

  10. CNN commentators on the desk (not reporters such as Anderson Cooper, who was beaten up by Mubarak’s thugs) could not pronounce the word, “goon”. Instead we got the space cadets jabbering about “gee, why is Egyptian fighting Egyptian? Can’t they just get along?”

  11. The distressing aspect is the ability to divide the people when I thought they would quickly understand the games of this egregious regime and resist even more passionately. It has been a painful day watching friends and strangers there fighting all day through different social media outlets and accusing those with whom they disagree of being traitors and paid by external power to destabilize the country. I would like to believe that this brave uprising is not dead yet, however, I am starting to feel it is deemed to failure considering the compromise of their unity. And in September, Omar Suliman will inherit Egypt. Thanks Professor Cole for an accurate and clear-headed analysis.

  12. If the protesters back down, and if the government and army are as duplicitous as it’s starting to sound, there will be reprisals in the coming weeks and months. The government will disappear all of the top people who tried to topple the government, to pave the way for the chief former military spook to take over the country and maintain the dictatorship.

    I’m hard pressed to think of an example where there was a successful revolution without the support of a country’s military against an autocrat. If the military leadership, other than Mubarak and friends, really see the military as the best solution for leading Egypt, then they have no incentive to relinquish control to a civilian government. The protesters need to get the army on their side or this has no chance and the autocracy is preserved.

  13. What happens Friday after prayers will be the determinator, IMO. The opposition now knows well the Army is not on their side as an institution. I know a number of oppositional organizations are pledged to the non-violent approach, but they will not win with that method because their foes are ruthless killers having no conscience, and that includes their US and Israeli allies–and the latter will double-down as they have nothing to lose. We all should recall Obama’s behavior during the Hondoran coup; if he backed that action in a meaningless country, he will certainly back Mubarak in a country that’s of far greater consequence.

  14. I am right now continuing to listen to Al Jazeera…there is no plan…there is almost total anarchy…..what will the regime achieve by riding it out?

  15. BTW, I am curious to discover what you think about the idea of Egypt as firewall; ie, if the movement is stopped in Egypt, then it brakes the momentum of liberalization elsewhere in the ME. If that’s the case, as I think it is, then the autocrats and their friends will fight extra hard to ensure the movement in Egypt is stopped. Putting things off until at least September would likely do that. These sorts of angry blowups are usually ephemeral, and then resentments go back to smoldering. Smoldering can be managed.

    • Hmm. I think the morons in the US power elite may think of Egypt that way. In reality, that seems almost certain to be untrue.

  16. hi
    this website is a great source of information for me
    glad to have something to contribute.
    The BBC morning news as of 8:00 UK time are reporting that the army (or at least tank crews on in the square) are “ready to fire on the pro mubarak thugs/demonstrators if they fire again on the anti mubarak forces” the source they site is a retired army general/instructor in army college who has spoken to the tank crews in the square. Dosen’t seem 100% cast iron but interesting and if true mubarak is even more gone than he was yesterday.

  17. Thanks to angryarab.blogspot, I was informed about Asma’ Mahfuz’s great efforts: “hailed by many as one of the pioneers of the Egyptian uprising through her tireless work and organizing on Facebook,” link to particulaly the very moving appeal she made on YouTube, which you might like to comment upon, link to

  18. I agree, Mubarak is trying to imitate the tactics of the Iranian leadership. The difference between his thugs and the basij, however, is that the latter are well rooted and have a firm command and logistic structure. The Iranian leaders have been preparing for years; they knew from prior unrest that they could not count on the police and regular army, so they carefully nurtured a loyal and extralegal militia.

    Mubarak, on the other hand, has always assumed he could count on the security forces, and was no doubt taken by surprise when the army did not put down the demonstrations. Thus, he tried to whip up a “basij” militia on the spur of the moment from various police elements and thugs hired by NDP bosses. But even a militia cannot be organized and trained overnight (and I’m guessing that Mubarak also didn’t have as big a slush fund to hire them with), so instead of a paramilitary force, his thugs functioned as a mob. The pro-democracy demonstrators were better motivated and disciplined, so they won last night’s battles. I think and hope that this gambit will fail.

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