Blood in the Streets

Massacring unarmed protestors is more common than you might think — and governments often get away with it.


July 09, 2013 “Information Clearing House –  The latest news from Egypt is grim. Fifty-one people are now said to have been killed earlier today when Army units guarding a military barracks opened fire on protestors loyal to deposed President Mohamed Morsy. The military says that the protestors were trying to storm the building. The Muslim Brotherhood insists that its supporters were behaving peacefully, saying that they were just completing their prayers as the firing began. Of those killed, only one was a soldier. The rest were Morsy supporters — and most of them appear to have been unarmed.

The fallout has been swift. The Al Nour Party, the sole Islamist group to back Morsy’s ouster by the military last week, announced that it was withdrawing its support. The Muslim Brotherhood promptly called for an uprising against the new interim government, which is currently headed by a novice president with zero political experience. (The announced appointment of liberal technocrat Mohammed ElBaradei had already run into problems over the weekend — and the massacre may have ruined his chances for good.) And all this happens as Egypt’s ailing economy is falling off a cliff. The White House may now be forced to cut assistance to the Egyptian military, and pending talks between Cairo and the International Monetary Fund about desperately needed loans will probably be put on hold.

Small wonder that one Western newspaper came up with this headline: “After massacre, has Egypt become ungovernable?” Many in Cairo and elsewhere are undoubtedly wondering whether the government of newly appointed President Adly Mansour can survive this atrocity.

Such questions are logical. Killing a bunch of apparently unarmed protestors does not seem like a good way for a newly installed government to endear itself to its people. The polarization of Egyptian political life was already well under way before the massacre, and it’s sure to exacerbate the divides. It’s worth remembering that 51.73 percent of Egyptians voted for Morsy in the country’s first democratic elections a year ago. Surely his supporters aren’t going to give up so easily. Now they’ll have an added incentive to push back hard against the generals — perhaps even to the point of civil war.

Yet history doesn’t automatically support the notion that massacres undermine the governments that launch them. Yes, the indiscriminate use of force can stiffen resistance and erode the legitimacy of the powers-that-be. Yet the recent past is also full of examples when security forces fired on defenseless protestors (or otherwise massacred the innocent) without causing major problems for the governments that gave the orders. In some cases, indeed, the slaughter might even help to keep the authorities in power (at least for a while).

Perhaps the best recent case of a massacre that ignited popular resentment and led straight to a government’s overthrow was the Black Friday shooting in Iran in September 1978, when forces loyal to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi opened fire on a big group of anti-government demonstrators in Jaleh Square in central Tehran. To this day, no one knows for sure how many were killed; the estimates range from around 70 to several thousand. What’s clear, though, is that the massacre essentially poured accelerant on the flames of the Iranian Revolution, ruling out any sort of negotiated solution between the Shah and his opponents. After Black Friday, the quantity, intensity, and violence of revolutionary demonstrations soared, and the government never regained the initiative. Five months later, the Shah was gone.

It remains to be seen whether Morsy’s supporters can prove as skilled as those of Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini at exploiting the deaths of “revolutionary martyrs.” There’s no question that the Brotherhood is well-organized, but, as Morsy’s stint in office demonstrated, they’re also shockingly oblivious to political dynamics outside of their own movement. And while Morsy certainly commands the support of a considerable bloc of sympathizers, their political weight is probably equaled or neutralized by that of the Egyptian armed forces.

In the past, even opposition movements that have overwhelming majorities behind them have found it hard to bounce back from attacks by ruthless governments. The 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, when police killed 69 demonstrators, undercut the legitimacy of the white-minority regime, dramatically deepened South Africa’s international isolation, and prompted the opposition movement to found its first armed guerrilla organizations. Even so, non-white South Africans had to wait another 34 years until apartheid finally gave way.

That was in a country where the rulers accounted for less than 10 percent of the population. But what about British-ruled India? In 1919, a unit of the British Indian army opened fire on unarmed protestors in a public garden in the city of Amritsar, killing up to 1,000 people — including many women and children. (This was at a time when a little more than 100,000 Britons on the subcontinent were lording it over a population of 250 million.) The news of the Jallianwal Bagh massacre prompted a surge of anger around the Raj, giving a big boost to the Indian nationalist movement. Yet there was no nationwide uprising. British guns and organization, combined with a deeply fragmented Indian opposition, enabled London to maintain its grip until 1947.

The use of indiscriminate, overwhelming force against protestors (even angry, violent ones) is always reprehensible. From a purely Machiavellian standpoint, though, there are few more effective ways to cow your opponents — especially if you’re a government firmly in power and they’re a scattered bunch of unarmed dissidents. Just ask the members of Burma’s former military junta, who managed to keep themselves on top for 50 years by repeatedly demonstrating their willingness to use deadly force against demonstrators. The leaders of China’s Communist Party endured only fleeting international censure after their bloody suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations in June 1989.

One might argue that this is because there are so many entrenched business interests who have an interest in glossing over bad behavior. But there are also many other reasons for official forgetfulness. The White House scolded Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov for the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in the city of Andijan in 2005 — but that moral impulse was soon overridden by the need to maintain supply lines to U.S. troops in Afghanistan that run through Karimov’s Central Asian homeland. (It’s striking, indeed, that reporters were unable to extract an unambiguous condemnation of the Cairo killings from the State Department today, where a spokeswoman was only willing “to call on the military to use maximum restraint responding to protesters, just as we urge all of those demonstrating to do so peacefully.” Protestors in Egypt can hardly be blamed for suspecting that the White House is bending over backwards to maintain its good relations with the Egyptian military.)

Given that they can’t always expect help from the outside, it’s easy to see why protestors need a lot of courage and considerable organization to stand up to the guns. The military dictatorship in South Korea cracked down hard on an uprising in the city of Gwangju in 1980, causing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of casualties. Still, the country’s pro-democracy activists successfully demonstrated their mettle in the years that followed, and finally managed to capitalize on national elections in 1988 to usher in genuine democracy. Russian revolutionaries rebounded from the Bloody Sunday killings in 1905 to bring down czarist rule 12 years later. (The Bolsheviks then heaved themselves into power seven months after that.) Still, even these two struggles show just how hard it can be to fight back against a government that’s has little compunction about killing its opponents. No one knows that better than the Syrian rebels, whose war against Bashar al-Assad started after his troops viciously crushed peaceful protests in 2011.

Perhaps there is some source of hope to be found in the realization that many of these governments did fall in the end. Of course, every situation is unique, and the “lessons of history” can hardly be considered binding. Egypt faces a period of unparalleled volatility — and any pundit who claims to know what will happen next is lying. But if history is any guide, we shouldn’t expect today’s bloodshed to weaken the military’s hold any time soon.

Christian Caryl, the editor of Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.

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