Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s ‘restrained reaction’

By Simon Allison 4 October 2011

It’s not easy to give any credit to the bad guys. That’s probably why Hosni Mubarak, for all his many sins, isn’t getting any recognition for departing office with (relatively speaking) a whimper rather than a bang. By SIMON ALLISON.

To howls of disbelief, the head of Egypt’s military government Hassan Tantawi told Egypt that Hosni Mubarak never ordered the military to shoot at the protesters which brought down his regime. “We were not asked to fire at the people and we will never use fire,” he said. “My testimony in the case of the killing of protesters was a testimony of truth from an honest man who has been a combatant for 40 years, in service of God and Egypt.”

Hassan Tantawi is not a man I’m inclined to trust. A reliable general in Mubarak’s elaborate apparatus of control and oppression for 40 years, his hands are just as dirty as anyone else’s in Egypt’s ancien regime. But in this instance, I think he might have a point. History won’t judge Mubarak kindly, but once the dust of the Egyptian Revolution has settled it might be appreciated that in dealing with the protests Mubarak showed restraint, a restraint that saved thousands and thousands of lives.

I was in Tahrir Square on 2 February this year, which was arguably the peak of the state-sponsored violence against the demonstrators. Tahrir was ringed by military vehicles and soldiers, who stood idly by as paid pro-Mubarak thugs, organised by undercover security agents, descended on the square from all directions. They were armed with a most eclectic collection of weapons: glass bottles, knives, rocks, molotov cocktails. I even saw an old-fashioned saber. But, crucially, I didn’t see any guns.

The demonstrators were less well-armed, and the fighting was ugly. A steady stream of battered and bloodied men were carried on makeshift stretchers to casualty points; some didn’t make it. It was the violent response of a brutal, authoritarian dictator to an unprecedented challenge to his regime, which in the course of the revolution claimed the lives of at least 840 demonstrators. But it could have been so much worse.

Let’s look at Libya. There’s a reason Libya descended into a civil war, and it’s nothing to do with the strength or tactics of the rebels. It’s how Gaddafi reacted to the problem. He wasn’t afraid to shell his own people, and he did. Estimates of the total killed in the war vary, but a conservative figure is around 20,000. The deaths in Libya’s revolution are nearly 24 times greater than the deaths in Egypt’s revolution. Of course, other factors come into play, such as the vastly different political landscape in Libya and the involvement of Nato bombers there. But still, the fact remains: when Hosni Mubarak resorted to force to quell the demonstrations, the big guns (literally and figuratively) were not sent in indiscriminately.

So when Hassan Tantawi claims Mubarak never ordered the army to shoot protesters, he’s backed up by the simple fact that the army didn’t shoot protesters. And he’s also backed up by the fact that he’s got nothing to gain and everything to lose by protecting Mubarak. After all, if he’d claimed to have directly defied Mubarak’s orders, he could have legitimately portrayed himself as a hero of the revolution. But by his account, he was just following orders; Mubarak’s orders. And it was these that prevented a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Tahrir.

This line of argument is uncomfortable to pursue. There’s a tendency to view atrocities on an absolute scale, with the theory that even a single human death is one death too many. It’s a valid point, but simplistic. The fact is there is a huge difference between 840 deaths and 20,000 deaths. It’s a difference of 19,400 people – people who are still alive in Egypt, and people who Gaddafi sent to an early grave in Libya.

Hosni Mubarak was a brutal, authoritarian, oppressive, corrupt and evil ruler who committed plenty of atrocities against the people he claimed to love. But as much as he fought against his departure, he left office without ordering the full might of the state against the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. And for that, if for nothing else, Egyptians can be grateful. DM

Read more:

  • Egypt’s army was not ordered to fire at protestors: general on Reuters Africa.



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