Aladin Abdel Naby / Courtesy Reuters A poster of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo, July 2002.

Controlling the Arab Street

A Brief History of Sit-Ins and Strongmen

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’

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