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Egypt's crackdown on protesters evokes Iran's heavy hand in 2009 unrest

With more than 100 estimated dead so far as Egyptian protests resume for a fifth day, Egypt's 'zero tolerance' policy is reminiscent of Iran's force to quash unrest after Ahmadinejad's reelection.

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“The Iranians created real fear through using extreme force in streets and detention centers – they much preferred personal combat to water cannon and tear gas,” says Sir Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Tehran now at the Chatham House think tank.

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The Iranians “made no concessions – to project strength," notes Sir Richard. Just after midnight Friday, as his ruling party's headquarters burned in Cairo, Mubarak ended four days of silence by giving some concessions: He promised to sack the government, but gave no indication that he was responsible for Egypt’s problems – or would step aside.

The Iranian leadership couched its street fight in very different terms. They “created an ideological wall around the protests using religion, false accusations, the ‘foreign enemies,’ [and] claims of sedition,” says Sir Richard.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, opposition figure, and former chief of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency, returned to Egypt Thursday, warning Mubarak that a “barrier of fear” had been broken. Mr. ElBaradei was put under house arrest Friday but planned to join protests on Saturday.

“The Egyptian security forces don’t do subtle – they just don’t know any other way except brute force,” says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East specialist at the City University London. “If the army is coming in … to separate the demonstrators from the Mubarak regime, it means the regime and its security thugs can’t handle it.”

According to the Financial Times, an Egyptian police officer said Friday, "Whoever raises his head today, we will stamp on it with our feet.”

And yet Saturday, as protests by tens of thousands grew in strength, there was little evidence on the streets of the Egyptian police, and only modest deployments of army units, which were sometimes welcomed with flowers from the demonstrators.

Friday's day of rage

Many Egyptians ignored a curfew Friday as the continued street rage and volleys of tear gas gave way to darkness. Throughout the day, the Egyptian government shut down the Internet and mobile phone service – critical social media tools used by protesters to mobilize. Those services were also shut down in Iran during the 2009 violence, greatly limiting the ability of Iranian protesters to organize.

Partial mobile phone service was restored in Egypt Saturday, but there was no indication that protesters would heed a new curfew ordered to begin at 4 p.m. State television warned that curfew breakers would be dealt with “severely,” but few Egyptians seemed to be listening.

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