When I first read an Economist news brief on the protests in Egypt (“Another Arab regime under threat”) I immediately saw parallels between the political rebellion in the world’s most populous Arab country and riots that occurred in Beijing over twenty years ago.
Indeed there are major differences. The People’s Republic of China has, since 1949, been ruled under a communist regime. Egypt, however, is ruled under the guise of a democracy, though it is clearly an example of an illiberal democracy, a pseudo-democracy where public elections are subverted by political regimes and a general lack of constitutional liberalism.
While only two decades have passed since Tiananmen, the world itself has undergone a technological revolution. In 1989, the riots in Tiananmen Square were largely the work of college students spreading their intent to protest across campuses. Twenty years later, Facebook and Twitter are the mediums of communication. We have seen this at work in China and Iran in 2009 when an influx of activity on Twitter and Facebook was the result of attempts by protesters to rally domestic support as well as international attention through posts of videos, photos, and general pleas to the global population.
A week ago, Egyptians utilized these social networking websites for disseminating their call for nation-wide riots. “A loose coalition of more than a dozen small parties and activist groups had issued a Facebook call for a ‘day of rage’ to coincide with Police Day on January 25th…Some 80,000 Egyptian web-surfers signed up, pledging to march on the streets to voice demands for reform.”
While there are clearly some major technological and political differences between riots in Egypt and in Beijing, the domestic contexts are analogous. Both the current riots in Cairo and the protests in Tiananmen occurred at times of great social unrest, and neither riots expected to garner such a degree of attention or support. As highlighted in the Economist news brief, while 80,0000 pledged to participate in a day of rage, “…few expected that number to turn up, and fewer expected Egypt’s harsh, experienced and effective riot police to let them get very far.” The same was true in Beijing in 1989, for, in both cases, the government underestimated the power and drive of citizenry to rise up.
What is similar of these two incidents is the compassion and sympathy felt by soldiers in the government-mandated militias. In 20th century China, the military had a close personal connection to the people. It is for this reason that tanks and soldiers sent in to respond to protesters failed to fire. They did not want to shoot upon innocent civilians. Many look upon this iconic photograph of a protester blocking a tank as evidence of oppression by the hands of China’s military. What they fail to see is the compassion evidenced in this photo. The operator of that tank could have easily fired upon this man, or run him over when he continued to impede the tank’s ability to move forward. The fact that he did not is significant because it reinforces the military’s strong relationship with its people. In fact, the only reason the protesters of Tiananmen were ever suppressed is that military forces from outside of Beijing were brought in and generals inculcated soldiers with lies about protesters enacting violence and attempting a military coup. Most soldiers would not have obeyed direct orders to suppress protesters with violence.
The same is true in Egypt. While, “late in the evening a police charge with truncheons, accompanied by barrages of tear-gas, volleys of birdshot, plastic bullets and percussion rounds”, Egypt’s military has failed or refused to take a hard stance on protesters, acting more as an intermediary force than as a proponent of opposition to either party. Furthermore, while Egypt’s, “security forces… can probably crush the protests… the government is already under pressure from Western allies to enact democratic reforms, and risks being further isolated internationally.”
Twenty years later, the stage has been moved from Tianamen Square to Tahrir Square. The question then arises, ‘To what extent will history repeat itself?’ Riots in Tiananmen shook the world, yet after the PRC government quelled protests the potential for democratic revolution in China was suppressed as well. Will this be the case in Egypt? Did the 30,000 Egypitians who marched across Alexandria and Cairo change history, or was their courageous defiance a mere blimp in Egypt’s history of oppression and tyranny?