As Egypt enters its fourth day of large scale protests and serious rioting, it is becoming increasingly likely that the Egyptian Government may fall in the same way that the Tunisian Government fell two weeks ago. Protests, and the self-immolation protests that escalated the protests in Tunisia, are also taking place in a number of other Middle Eastern countries inspired by the events in Tunisia.
The Egyptian Government has responded by blocking access to a number of social networking sites on the internet and the SMS system. Many media sources have been describing this as another “Twitter Revolution,” but the concentration on the methodology used to organize the protests misses the point of what has turned this from dissatisfaction with the government and protest into anger and rioting.
Like Tunisia, the Egyptian Government’s response to large scale unauthorized protests was to use the police to disperse them. The police in turn relied on a heavy use of less lethal weapons, which escalated into using the less lethal weapons in a lethal fashion (such as firing CS canisters directly at people) and then further escalating to the use of lethal force. All this achieves is a hardening of attitudes and an expectation of violent confrontation from those attending protests. The reception the first Egyptian Army vehicles received when they arrived on the streets of Cairo demonstrated that the protestors saw the police as the enemy and felt the Army would protect them.
The comparison with Jordan shows how a different approach can have a very different effect. There have been similar protests there driven by similar concerns in Jordan. Some of those protests have been violent and the police have used force to deal with them. However, the peaceful protests have been facilitated, and rallies and marches have been allowed to proceed with minimal involvement from the police. People feel their voices are being heard, and this has prevented the situation from escalating. The regime is equally unpopular in Jordan and their Human Rights record has been heavily criticized in the past, but their handling of these protests has been far more effective.
People protest because they feel they have a grievance and are upset. If they are allowed to state their case and feel that their concerns are being listened to, that is sufficient for most people. But in a situation where they feel they are not allowed to state their case and where force is used to prevent them from airing their grievances, they will quickly become angry and resort to violence as a method of getting their point across.
This is a useful lesson for anyone involved in protest policing anywhere in the world. Policing protest is a difficult enough task without turning yourself into the enemy, facilitating peaceful protest and using force only where it is absolutely necessary and only against those that are engaged in violent disorder. Using indiscriminate force to prevent or end protests may sometimes work in the short term but will always lead to greater problems in the long term.