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So You Want to Disperse a Large Islamist Sit-In

So You Want to Disperse a Large Islamist Sit-In

CAIRO — Egypt’s new rulers have a problem: Tens of thousands of supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsy are camped out in two large sit-ins across Cairo. The new government doesn’t want them there — in fact, it has been so insistent on this point that it authorized the police to take "all the necessary measures" to clear the demonstrations. Yesterday, security officials said they would besiege the sit-ins within 24 hours.

While that deadline appears to have been postponed, the fact remains that dispersing the pro-Morsy crowds is no simple task. A police assault on one of the sit-ins last month killed at least 72 people, without succeeding in breaking up the demonstration. A new bout of violence threatens to provoke international condemnation of the new government, while also weakening its domestic legitimacy.

Sid Heal made his career in resolving problems just like this one. As a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, he was a platoon commander during the 1992 L.A. riots, and then the principal advisor to the U.S. Marine Corps on non-lethal options for Operation United Shield in Somalia. And his experience has taught him that controlling a crowd depends not only on the tactics used, but also on having a "clearly defined, feasible end state" in mind.

The Egyptian police force is largely unchanged from Hosni Mubarak’s reign, and has received a great deal of justified criticism for using disproportionate violence against demonstrators. But if Egyptian officials believe they can convince Morsy supporters to abandon their cause by breaking up the sit-ins, Heal told FP, they are asking for something that no police force could accomplish.

"When you disperse [protesters], that doesn’t mean that they go away. It just means that they go to a different place," he said. "What is it you are trying to accomplish by dispersing this crowd? In many cases, if it’s peace, I can tell you right now that’s a futile effort."

There are some signs that Egypt’s security forces are attempting to approach the demonstrations as both a political and security challenge. The Interior Ministry recently held a meeting with human rights activists, where they invited the activists to observe the dispersal of the sit-ins. Ahmad Samih, the head of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, was one of those present at the meeting: "They told me you have been witnessing the elections, why would you not witness the break up of the sit-in," he said.

Samih said that the Interior Ministry estimated that there would be a minimum of 3,000 casualties from both sides if the security forces moved to violently break up the sit-ins through force. "They are expecting a very violent resistance," he said. "They told me, ‘This is not Tahrir Square.’"

According to Heal, the goal is to separate the violent protesters from those who are less dedicated to the cause. Crowd-control experts argue that large crowds are made up of smaller "companion clusters" — typically composed of friends or family members — that each have different levels of commitment. The aim for security forces is to tailor their response to each cluster: They should not respond to the armed youth at the front lines, for example, in the same way that they respond to the women and children in the rear.

"Indiscriminately using a non-lethal weapon against people who just happen to be there but don’t happen to be involved takes them from being mildly interested to fully committed instantaneously," Heal said. "Tear gas is one of the most common, because it is indiscriminate by nature."

Heal is a staunch advocate of advanced non-lethal weapons systems, particularly the Active Denial System, a U.S. military-designed heat ray intended to be used for crowd control. But such technology remains beyond the reach of both American and Egyptian police, which still rely on tools that Heal describes as "primitive" — rubber bullets, tear gas, and tasers.

In the absence of better technology, Heal recommends more subtle ways to bring about a protest’s collapse. "The infrastructure for the sit-ins cannot support a crowd the size you’re talking about. And as a result of that, they tend to self-implode," Heal said. "For instance, there’s no sanitary facilities, and men and women have very strong social norms at urinating or defecating in public…. The other thing is people are comfort-seeking creatures — thirst and hunger are other natural dispersal agents that could work in their favor."

Whether that strategy would work in Egypt remains unclear. The sit-ins appear to be getting larger and more permanent with time, thus increasing the chances of a violent confrontation with security forces. For Heal, the name of the game is to prevent a winner-take-all conflict between the two sides.

"If I had a strategy, it would be to provide hope. As long as there is hope, nobody is willing to go to the extreme," he said. "To the degree that I have removed hope, or that I have chosen the application of force arbitrarily … I have then elevated the chance that violence will be used to resist me."