On Hosni Mubarak and Mask-Wearing Rock Throwers

by Jamison Koehler on January 30, 2011

In the early 1980s, as a student at the University of Freiburg in Germany, I participated in a series of student demonstrations against the local government.  Prompted by the closing of some low-rent buildings that students had been using for housing, the demonstrations began peacefully, with thousands of people assembling in the old city to protest.  As with any large gathering of people, the group included a number of hooligans who used the demonstration as an excuse to vent.  But most of the demonstrators – at least on the first day — were students.  There were street musicians and kids kicking soccer balls around.  There were vendors selling ice cream.

The local police blocked off some of the buildings that were the subject of the demonstration with concertina wire and ordered the crowd to disperse. When these efforts failed, the government used tear gas, bright lights and water hoses, while calling for additional riot police from other cities.  They also called for help from the federal government.

Unbeknownst to the demonstrators, in addition to the riot police manning the barriers behind concertina wire, special army troops had been secretly ferried into the city and were hidden away in the government buildings on all sides of the demonstrators. On the second day, police vans suddenly sped into the center of the demonstration, with riot police wielding shields and batons spilling out the back.  When demonstrators tried to flee onto the side roads, they were trapped by camouflaged army troops pouring out from the buildings.  Unencumbered by the plastic shields and masks of the riot police, these troops were far more mobile.

After the attack, the peaceful demonstrators were quickly replaced by rock-throwing and spray-painting hooligans wearing motorcycle helmets and masks, and the city turned into a war zone.

To the surprise of my friends, who were disgusted by the government’s overreaction to the demonstration and retreated to the safety of their homes, I was completely hooked by this adrenaline-producing experience. Maybe because I was holding a camera and did not run when the troops arrived, I seemed completely immune to any harm:  The troops sprinted past me to club other demonstrators.  And, although I never threw a stone or lifted a can of spray-paint, I was gradually accepted into the inner group of people who were calling the shots for the demonstrators.  Perhaps they too assumed I was a reporter (an American one at that), and wanted the press coverage.

The experience allowed me to witness first-hand an enormous shift in power. The government’s reaction had strengthened the hand of the demonstration’s most radical elements and, by the time the demonstrators had begun to occupy a number of vacant government buildings on the third day, the influence of those advocating peaceful demonstrations had been completely supplanted by the mask-wearing rock-throwers.

I was thinking about all of this recently while reading about the demonstrations first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. While my wife has been impatient with me for not sharing her concern about the Administration’s tepid response, the fact is that I know very little about the current political situation in the Middle East, much less Egypt specifically.  I also tend to defer to the current administration on the assumption that they know things that the rest of us don’t, a tendency which is particularly strong when someone like Barack Obama is in the White House.

But I don’t know.  From what I read in the papers, it looks as though, despite the presence of some looters (there will always be looters) the demonstrators seem to represent a cross-section of Egyptian society.  It looks as though, if anything, we are even more closely associated the new second-in-command, Omar Suleiman, than we are with President Mubarak himself.  And once again it looks as though we are finding ourselves on the wrong side of change.

With the Egytian army moving in to replace the dreaded police, President Mubarak may well be trying to avoid an overreaction that could strengthen more radical elements within Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  At the same time, it is impossible to say whether the current restraint is due to Mubarak or despite him.

One Comment on “On Hosni Mubarak and Mask-Wearing Rock Throwers

  1. Your story about the protest in Germany reminded me of this:

    “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” — John F. Kennedy, in a speech at the White House, 1962.

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