It is possible for regimes to get away with massacres of unarmed protesters. China’s ruthless repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is evidence of that. But it only works if there is a strong regime that is internally united behind the need for repression and that maintains the tacit support of most citizens. Otherwise, trying to shoot protesters can backfire, as both Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Assad have learned in the past few years: Their ham-handed attempts at repression instead sparked civil wars.
It is impossible to know into which category Egypt will fall, but the latter possibility–a crackdown triggering a civil war–looks more likely than the former at this point, a crackdown being sullenly accepted by regime opponents and the population at large. Yet Egypt’s generals, who have seized back the reins of power, seem oblivious to this danger. Buoyed by popular protests against “terrorism” that they themselves organized, they gave the go-ahead to the security forces to open fire on crowds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo. At least 72 people were killed on Saturday, many, it seems, with a single shot to the torso or head–most likely denoting police or army snipers at work.
Predictably, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed that the shooting was all the work of protesters and that his police officers “have never and never will shoot a bullet on any Egyptian.” The bulk of the evidence–including videos released by participants–suggests otherwise. While the crowd of protesters may have thrown some rocks at police and built barricades and may even have fired a few shots, the violence was shockingly one-sided, as indicated by the casualty toll–there were few reports of police officers being killed or wounded and many, many reports of casualties among the demonstrators.
The military, emboldened by the ease with which it ousted the Morsi government from power, appears to imagine that it no longer needs to make any compromises–that it can simply crush the Muslim Brotherhood by force. And perhaps it can. But the generals are making a dangerous gamble: They are pushing a large, well-organized movement–indeed the largest and most effective organization in Egypt outside the army itself–into a corner from which violence offers the only avenue of escape. The New York Times’s Robert F. Worth, who has been providing yeoman coverage from Cairo, notes perceptively “the Brotherhood’s only reliable partners now are other Islamist groups whose members may be more willing to use violent or radical tactics.”
Worth also points out: “Its options are limited in any case, because to back down now, with no guarantee from Egypt’s interim government that the Brotherhood would be spared deeper repression in the future, could be political suicide.” Even if Brotherhood leaders do want to back down, their ability to do so may be limited because young hotheads are going to fight back and they could wind up dragging their more cautious elders with them.
For years the Brotherhood put its resources behind peaceful regime change, a strategy that culminated in its victory in the first and so far only post-Mubarak election. The military’s overthrow of that regime and now its willingness to slaughter Brotherhood supporters in the street may toss that peaceful commitment out the window and plunge Egypt into the vortex of civil war.
Maybe there is still a way out of this impasse, but it is hard to have any confidence that Egypt’s generals–who have enriched themselves for years while the country has stagnated around them–know what they are doing. It appears they are simply doing what comes naturally to military men: using force–and never mind the consequences.