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.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Protesters shout anti-goverment slogans during a demonstration in Cairo, Saturday. Thousands of angry Egyptians rallied in central Cairo to demand that President Hosni Mubarak resign and call on troops to come over to their side despite Mubarak's use of tactics reminiscent of Iran's in 2009.

Egyptians say their growing protest against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak was sparked by the Tunisia uprising that toppled another veteran authoritarian leader two weeks ago.

But while ordinary Egyptians have been inspired by the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the forceful response of Mr. Mubarak’s regime more resembles how Iran successfully – if mercilessly – dealt with widespread protests in 2009 after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Anyone who followed Iran's violent crackdown then may feel a twinge of déjà vu as they watch rows of Egyptian riot police and plainclothes security agents battle Egyptians with batons, tear gas, and water cannons in their bid to halt five days of unprecedented protest.

By midday Saturday, as protesters returned to the street again to push for an end to Mr. Mubarak’s rule, the nationwide death toll from the protest was high and rising. Correspondents for Al Jazeera English visited hospitals in several cities and counted 108 dead, with a Western human rights monitor confirming that some were killed by live ammunition; earlier Reuters put the death toll at 74.

At least eight more were killed by live fire near a Cairo prison, Al Jazeera reported Saturday afternoon. Witnesses said Saturday that “live ammunition” was being used to quell unrest, according to Reuters and Al Jazeera. Violence overnight Friday left a number of police stations and government buildings torched.

On the face of it, the outpouring of anger across Egypt and the government's declared "zero tolerance" policy look similar to the Iranian street fight in mid-2009. The Islamic Republic used every tool to quell weeks of unrest, which senior Revolutionary Guard commanders said later had brought the regime to the “edge” of collapse.

But while many dozen have so far been killed in Egypt and more than 1,000 injured, the violence in Iran was marked by its brutality. Scores, if not hundreds, were killed in Iran, 4,000 were arrested in the first stage, and detainees were raped and tortured.

Differences with Iran crackdown

“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.

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.

“The Egyptians are at the beginning of their responses,” says Sir Richard. The Egyptian leader may try to consolidate his legitimacy – with different elements than in Iran – and project strength, and is more likely to accept concessions, he says. “Depending on the severity of the challenge [Mubarak] may pick up more from the Iranian playbook, but it looks less extreme for now.”

Still, a number of similar tactics were deployed. Plainclothes agents in Cairo Friday rode through the urban battlefields on motorcycles, reminiscent of Iranian riot police and pro-government vigilantes darting from one urban frontline to another in Tehran and other Iranian cities.

CNN reported rumors that criminals had been “released from prisons” in Egypt to be used by the regime as “shock troops” in the attempted crackdown. In Iran, numerous reports confirmed that drug dealers and other street thugs with criminal records were deployed in 2009 by the authorities in some detention centers to brutalize detainees.

Scenes in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez of protesters taking shields and batons away from riot police was reminiscent of 2009, when ordinary Iranians attacked riot police and sometimes paraded with their gear.

Will repression work in Egypt?

In Iran the repression worked and large public protests are no more, since determined riot police and religious basiji militiamen showed to protesters the high cost of continued action.

In Egypt, it's too early to tell whether the force being shown by Mubarak, a close US ally whose country has received billions in US military and financial aid since signing a peace deal with Israel in 1979, will have a similar result to Iran's heavy hand.

“Obviously the [Mubarak] regime has decided to crack down very hard on the protesters, but the protesters and the popular uprising [are] much more deeply entrenched,” Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera English.

“The most important point … is that the barrier of fear has collapsed, has fallen. Egyptians now are no longer terrified of the security apparatus as they used to be,” said Mr. Gerges. “The military is the key … remember in Tunisia what made the difference [was] the military basically made up its mind and told [former president] Ben Ali to pack and leave.”

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