Swarm tactics befuddle police in Cairo

Swarm tactics befuddle police in Cairo

For the last few hours, I’ve been glued to my Twitter stream, monitoring the spreading protests in Egypt. The demonstrations have long been planned as a response to "Police Day," a much-unloved national holiday originally intended to honor cops in the city of Ismailia who stood against the British invasion of 1952. In recent years, it’s become a potent symbol of everything that’s wrong with Egypt under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

This year, the protesters, inspired by events in Tunisia and outraged by the death last year of Khalid Said, a young man brutally tortured and killed by police in Alexandria, organized themselves on Facebook and called for a "day of anger" across the country.

So far,  they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Events are moving rapidly, but here’s what we know so far: The protests began at different points in the city, such as Doqqi in Giza to the west and Shubra in the north, and converged on points downtown. I’ve seen reports of large crowds in  Ramses, Abdeen, Ataba, and Tahrir squares — all major important public spaces. There are also scattered demonstrations in other parts of the country, such as Alexandria, Mansoura, and Sinai.

It’s too early to say that these are "massive" protests — there are, after all, some 80 million people in Egypt, and no report I’ve seen thus far puts today’s number at more than 100,000 — but they could easily grow into something truly huge. So far, the police have mostly taken a hands-off approach, albeit with beatings, tear gas, and water cannons in some places. But if the demonstrations continue to grow, Mubarak could face the same dilemma that faced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia: Crack down for real, try to meet the protesters’ demands halfway (say, by sacking his widely reviled interior minister, Habib al-Adly), or some combination of the two.

After today, Mubarak can’t have great confidence in his Central Security Forces — the riot police charged with putting down demonstrations. These are usually slim, scared-looking lads from upper Egypt, poorly trained and uneducated, with little pay and few perks. I’ve seen multiple reports of the CSF being outmaneuved and backing down in the face of protesters. The army is another matter — more than a million men at arms, well-equipped and presumably well motivated to protect their significant interests across the country. (He can also call on the regular police and the vast resources of state security, which will no doubt be hunting down organizers in the days to come.) Will we be seeing tanks in the streets this spring?

It may not get to that point. But the Egyptian street got a taste of its power today. For a people long thought to be quiescent, apathetic, apolitical — it must be an electrifying feeling. Hosni is not going to sleep well tonight.

Stay tuned.