In Egypt, as in many of the great revolutions of modern history, the people not only overthrew the old order but also remained in the streets of the capital to oversee the creation of a new one. And as was to be expected, the forces of order, notably the army, then sought to send them home. What is unusual about the Egyptian case, however, is that the sit-ins, encampments, and targeted occupations were well organized and had been developed by the Muslim Brotherhood to last in the face of military intervention.

The generals who run Egypt today are not the first Arab rulers to fear the power of those seeking to use the streets and open spaces to demand change. Shutting down access was a top priority for the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime, which seized power in Cairo in a 1952 military coup and was then unwilling to share it with any other organized political force. Other army-backed revolutionary governments in Iraq, Libya, and Syria followed similar playbooks in their attempts to destroy organizations that might take to the streets, including Communist parties, independent trade unions, militant student groups, and Islamists.

First, they developed safe alternatives for the expression of public opinion, including such mass parties as Egypt’s Arab Socialist Union. The party was run by a combination of ex-military officers and former leftists, with branches in government offices, trade union headquarters, and the poorer quarters of the cities.

Second, the military regimes sought to drive their own supporters into the streets to drown out the voices of anyone else. For example, Nasser gave a resignation speech after Egypt's humiliating defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. His supporters poured into the streets to demand that he stay. Much the same tactics were employed by those who supported Iraq’s Abd al-Karim Qasim during his five stormy years as prime minister, from 1958 to 1963.

Third, they prioritized tight control over large public squares and other open spaces. Consider the history of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a main focal point for today’s unrest. Created in the early 1950s out of an old military parade-ground, the square was meant to be the site for an annual celebration of Egypt’s independence. It was always strictly monitored; for some years after the so-called bread riots of 1977, special security police observed the area from a set of raised walkways. Only the occasional pro-regime event was encouraged. Otherwise, mass use of the square was confined to assembling at the start of funeral processions for regime favorites, such as the singer Umm Kulthum in 1975.

When these steps did not succeed in preventing uprisings, it never took more than a few days of tough police action, aided sometimes by the proclamation of a daytime curfew, to bring the situation back under control. This is precisely what happened in Egypt’s southern neighbor, Sudan, when a sudden rise in the price of sugar and gasoline led to rowdy demonstrations.

Given Tahrir Square's history as a military parade ground, its occupation in the early days of the January 2011 revolution was of enormous symbolic importance. For the first time ever, protesters successfully defeated the police’s attempts to clear the area, and the army subsequently acquiesced to the demonstrators’ presence, under heavy pressure from the Obama administration.

It was only in August of that year that the army and police were finally able to clear the square and put up barricades and checkpoints to prevent any return. This was easy because few of the protesters then had any desire to do more than just be there for a few hours -- and certainly not to camp out. Following the standard playbook, it was an attempt to move popular politics out of the public arena and back into committees, councils, and assemblies. The clean sweep of the square did not last for long, however. Tahrir remained a site for intermittent struggle, as groups dominated by the militant middle-class youth, and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, marched back into the square in November 2011 and again later to call for limits on the military’s interference in the political process.

Yet now the military’s deposition of former President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has brought the opposition back to the square. In the past, protesters would generally leave as ordered, and during the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood followed that general course. But in recent weeks, it has combined marches to selected sites with sit-ins and temporary encampments, bolstered by support from nearby mosques.

With these new tactics has come a new politics, in which popular legitimacy depends less on the media’s guesstimates of the size of a crowd but on the actual numbers of people seen camped out in certain squares. And for that reason, the military and the Brotherhood are both urging their supporters to the streets. The Brothers have bused in followers to swell the numbers assembled at their two main sit-ins, one outside the big mosque in Rabaa al-Adawiya, the other near the airport where Morsi is thought to be detained. All this has given rise to a highly charged political vocabulary, with its emphasis on bloodshed, martyrs, rights and wrongs, and the demonization of the other side.

Fortunately for the general peace, the main centers of popular assembly -- Tahrir for supporters of the military government, Rabaa al-Adawiya for the Brotherhood -- are several miles apart. But in the case of the latter, what looks from BBC photographs like a huge outdoor camp-site -- with its shops and street vendors selling snacks, prayer mats, hats and sticks, its canopies and tents, its field hospitals and media center -- is itself surrounded by police and army barricades aimed to let people out but not in. At any moment, these forces may be used as a springboard for a bloody attempt to sweep all the encamped protesters away -- as the government has announced it intends to do.

If there is a crackdown fierce enough to make the Brotherhood disperse, the group will return to earlier forms of opposition, such as mosque-based protests after prayers and smaller demonstrations to mark such anniversaries as the overthrow of Morsi. It will always be on the lookout for an opportunity to get back into a square or two somewhere -- and stay.

Republics based on the notion of the sovereignty of the people were perhaps the inevitable successor to the old colonial order. It may have made sense at first for their self-appointed representatives, the early strongmen, to speak in the name of those they governed. But by the same token, the authoritarian republics have proved a difficult form of government to replace from scratch. With millions of people in the streets demanding not only to be seen and heard but also to be listened to, Egypt may yet see a real civil war if the process of re-engaging the people is not carried out with great diplomacy and finesse.


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  • ROGER OWEN is A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East Studies (Emeritus) at Harvard University.
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