|Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators battle regime loyalists (unseen) in Cairo’s Tahrir square [AFP]|
The apparently sudden and unexpected violence against Egyptian protesters that started on February 2 has an interesting historical ring to it. The date marks the unbanning of liberation movements in South Africa in 1990, and the start of political negotiations between the apartheid regime and the African National Congress. It also marks the start of the most violent period in South Africa’s turbulent political history.
The parallels with Egypt start with Mubarak’s speech to the nation on February 1, ostensibly making a significant concession to the protesters and a commitment to Egypt’s democratic future. The next day thugs, many now clearly identified as members of the security forces, rallied in central Cairo and launched attacks on hitherto peaceful demonstrators.
The tactics of deploying so-called third forces is a tried and tested method of autocratic regimes, usually utilised when the regime realises that it is on the strategic defencive politically. The focus of the regime then shifts from merely ruling as usual to extending its reign as long as possible, while at the same time sapping the material and political energy of its opponents.
In South Africa this tactic was intended to legitimise the regime as the only thing standing between an orderly transition to democracy on the one hand, and chaos on the other. At the same time it sought to drain the energy of the liberation movement by killing some of its leaders, forcing it into a defencive mode of thinking and compelling it to accept a compromise favourable to the regime. Mubarak’s statements prior to the unleashing of his ‘police-in-civilian clothing’, the inaction of the army and the apparently reasonable response of his Prime Minister after the fact that they will vigorously investigate the violence and bring the perpetrators to book, are well rehearsed elements of a ‘third force’ strategy.
Like in South Africa, the Egyptian ‘third force’ will be constituted of a variety of elements, including members of the security services operating as civilians, party loyalists and some civilians who are attracted by financial incentives. Even criminal gangs will be increasingly utilised, providing further ‘evidence’ that the violence is not perpetrated by the regime but plainly criminal. In the end the entire effort is neither spontaneous nor independent.
Any decent investigation will find that this force is organised, resourced and directed by elements within the Mubarak regime. The Tahrir Square protesters have already collected ample evidence to this effect. In South Africa it took the brave Justice Richard Goldstone (of the UN Gaza Report fame) to expose a similar and wide-ranging network of regime instruments masquerading as various independent third forces.
Unless the army intervenes on the side of the Egyptian democracy movement, this ‘third force’ will continue to strike, not only in Cairo and other cities but increasingly also in the rural parts of the country. In South Africa the third force violence lasted from 1990 to 1994. In Egypt Mubarak’s regime has until September to produce a disorganised, leaderless and desperate opposition unable to execute a proper election campaign. The lessons of South Africa are instructive in how to defeat this effort by a desperate regime.
The continued unity of South Africans, in protest, was the central element that defeated the efforts of the apartheid regime to continue governing. If the Egyptian people continue protesting, as they have for the last two weeks, any claims of legitimacy by the regime are transparently ridiculous. In South Africa the central demand of the liberation movement at the height of third force violence became one for a transitional government.
No autocratic regime can oversee its own demise, and a real election could only take place if the entire state apparatus, including its security forces, were placed under the control of an interim government. The South African Transitional Executive Council established in 1993 and acting as an interim government, ensured the holding of free and fair elections in April 1994.
Anything less than the departure of Mubarak and his key allies will mean a transition always under threat of violence by a so-called third force, and an election that might disappear amidst the violence visited upon the Egyptian resistance.
David Africa is an independent security analyst based in South Africa. He has previously worked in counter-terrorism intelligence and research, and served in the underground of the then-banned African National Congress in South Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.