Advancing a Free Society

Police and Regime Change in Egypt

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It would be folly to view recent events in Egypt as merely a failure
of police crowd control.  It is equally foolhardy to believe pundits
and public officials across the political spectrum when they describe
the eighteen-day overthrow of the Egyptian government as peaceful.
Reliable statistics aren’t yet available, but as many as 365 deaths
and 3,000 injuries have been reported in the uprising. Peaceful it was

As a New York City Police officer and as the police chief of Kansas
City, Missouri, and later San José, California, I was involved in
policing hundreds of violent and incipiently violent riots,
demonstrations and potentially unsettling public events. My viewing of
the television coverage of the Egyptian uprising was chock full of
violent individuals. They threw Molotov cocktails, hurled large stones
and other missiles, set fires and caused deaths and serious injuries.


The logistics by which large crowds were assembled and weapons made
available to, and successfully employed by, participants in Egypt were
not simply due to the spontaneous efforts of peace-loving individuals
who desired only to have their voices heard. Hordes of young men
charged barricades in efforts to break through and destroy government
facilities, and to rout police.  When they were initially repulsed,
television clips showed them burning cars and stores and fiercely
flinging rocks and other objects likely to cause serious injury or
death. Those not actually engaging in violence were well aware that by
their mere presence in the midst of violence they were contributing to
the threat of disorder. Whether or not the end of removing a
thirty-year repressive dictator from office justifies the means used
is a separate question and doesn’t excuse a fanciful flight from a
reality that was so threatening it led the United States to
frantically evacuate all Americans from the country.


President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton’s initial statements
strongly supporting Mubarak, and shortly after contending that the
Egyptian government needed to refrain from using force against
non-violent demonstrators were not helpful in framing debate on a very
dodgy situation. Mischaracterizing events as violence flowing solely
from Mubarak not only encouraged accelerated aggression by
demonstrators, it also ran a highly dangerous risk of angering a
vicious dictator into retaliating by rounding up Americans trapped in
the country and using them as hostages, as happened in Iran after the
overthrow of the Shah.

American desire to adopt a rosy-eyed, false view of what happened
presently endangers the United States’ ability to craft a pragmatic
approach likely to help in real reform of despotic governments. Our
country must continue to serve as a champion of human rights and
democratic governments. But it is also true that the U.S. cannot
become entrapped in a policy of overtly supporting the overthrow of
any government that doesn’t measure up to perfection. The clear and
present danger is that the wrong United States response to violent
coups could lead not only to new regimes that are far more repressive
and deadly to their own people, but could also lead to new regimes
that would provide sanctuaries for terrorist groups to launch attacks
on America such as the one on September 2001 that took 3,000 lives.


The success record for grass roots, non-violent protests seeking
freedom and democracy through regime change is scant. The key to
regime change is almost always the magnitude of violence or the
imminent threat of large-scale carnage.  On rare occasions, peaceful
demonstrations can eventually become violent when police overreact and
blunder into turning nonviolent people into a mob, but this was not
the case in the Tahrir Square and Alexandria demonstrations.


It is noteworthy that two earlier police incidents in Egypt did serve
as catalysts enabling demonstration organizers to mobilize large
assemblies. In the first incident, inept policing led a female officer
to seize the meager possessions of an impoverished street peddler.
Subsequently, the police failed to stop the unfortunate individual
from publicly immolating himself as a result.  The second incident
involved a group of crooked cops beating businessman Khaled Said to
death after he had enraged them by broadcasting on Facebook a YouTube
video the cops had made of themselves dividing up the loot from
robbing a drug dealer.  Wael Ghonim, the Google executive identified
as the most prominent of the demonstration organizers, managed to
flood the Internet with depictions of both events.

Publicizing the confrontations on the Internet ensured large
gatherings.  Of course, thirty years of inept and ruthless tyrannical
government which had produced a crippled economy and widespread
suppression of human rights provided an underlying motivation that
greatly increased the number of people willing to risk retaliation by
publicly protesting.

Even the most democratic governments and professional police forces
must quickly and firmly employ sufficient force to preserve order when
determined organizers succeed in motivating large crowds to violently
attack government facilities and personnel. The Egyptian regime change
took place because skilled organizers succeeded in mobilizing a great
many people to attack a failed government which lacked the moral
authority necessary to preserve order.


In a television interview, Wael Ghonim bluntly said in a television
interview that it had been his intent to start a revolution. He and
his fellow organizers achieved their goal to use the Internet to get
as many people on the street as possible. Obviously, the size of a
peaceful crowd demanding regime change would have had little impact
upon the dictatorial, police state Egyptian government. But the number
of people assembled is directly related to the crowd’s capability of
overwhelming government forces, and through violence, or the imminent
threat of violence, to create a state of chaos that convinces society
that the government is unable to maintain order and must be replaced.
It is naïve to think those organizing the demonstrations did not have
this intent.

The fact that no single or dominant group has been in control of the
Egyptian rebellion does not mean that powerful, determined, factions
do not exist, and do not have to reckoned with in the immediate
future.  It is imperative to understand how behind the scenes plans,
tactics, and operations of both the forces seeking to prevent disorder
and those intent upon pressing their own views of social behavior upon
the polity influence the outcome. Wishful thinking about non-violence
flies in the face of the fact that the people of Egypt have never been
fortunate enough to experience democracy and would be unlikely to
recognize it, let alone to demand it.

Thus, the romantic view that the assembly of thousands of people
thirsting for democracy, peacefully gathering to express their views,
caused regime change is erroneous and a disastrous base for foreign
policy. In the opening hours of the uprising, large crowds threw
Molotov cocktails and lethal rocks in angry, well planned action
against the police.  The manufacture and deployment of Molotov fire
bombs and, as shown on TV, the provision and the sorting of missiles
to be thrown and their storage in convenient locations for the mob,
reveal logistics which are anything but casual and spontaneous. The TV
scenes vividly depicted constant threats of escalating violence beyond
the ability of the police to control through reasonable force, even
had they been so inclined. The flight of the defiant dictator Mubarak
took place only when the size of the crowds became so great that it
forced the Military to assume control and to order the police to

The crowds did not become less violent because the military employed
force. In fact, television showed the military avoiding the use of
force. Cheering demonstrators mounted tanks despite verbal commands by
military officers to keep their distance. The hesitation of soldiers
to employ the awesome force of their weapons rendered them impotent.
Military leaders decided to stand down, and embrace regime change with
the hope of gradually removing demonstrators and restoring order by
using minimal force.


The single most effective tactic of the police in preserving order
during demonstrations is to engage in confidential meetings with
protest leaders beforehand to hammer out an agreement on the ground
rules.  The public is generally unaware that such meetings occur,
because it serves the interest of both the demonstrators and the
police to keep the meetings confidential.  Demonstration leaders
usually rely upon inflammatory speech-making to motivate followers and
to attract public attention to the urgency of their cause.  A
pre-meeting on ground rules could detract from the urgency of their
voice. Knowledge that demonstration leaders met with the police would
greatly diminish the impact of their fiery rhetoric on drawing large
crowds. The police, on the other hand, are often criticized by
individuals and groups opposed to the demonstrators’ views for
allowing demonstrations to take place.  Knowledge that the police had
met with the demonstration leaders to facilitate their desire for
publicity in exchange for keeping order only intensifies conflict and
emotions, making the police job that much more difficult.

During the pre-meetings, demonstration leaders cannot legitimately
argue that they wish to create disorder to further their cause. The
police, for their part, cannot restrict the demonstration based upon
the political content of its message or their personal opinions.
While, under the U.S. Constitution, the police may not limit the size
of the demonstration, they are allowed to impose reasonable rules
regulating public access and safety. Pre-meetings are not a panacea.
Even if demonstration leaders act in good faith, they may not be able
to control others participating in the demonstration set on violence.
Similarly, the police are not always able to control the behavior of
their own members or counter-demonstrators.


Nevertheless, despite differing goals of demonstrators and cops, the
law and public opinion motivates both sides to reach agreement. The
demonstrators want maximum publicity for their cause. The police want
to prevent disorder. I was present during Dr. Spock’s attempt to close
the Army Draft Center in lower Manhattan during the 1960’s
Anti-Vietnam war protests. Thousands of cops were greatly outnumbered
by protestors, but kept the demonstrators from getting near the Draft
Office. By pre-arrangement, however, a contingent of cops led Dr.
Spock and a handful of followers through police lines so they could be
arrested in front of television cameras for disorderly conduct in
blocking the entrance to the facility. He and his party were then
taken to a police station, booked and released. Honorably, Dr. Spock
pleaded guilty and paid a nominal fine. Others with him went to trial.
The judge ruled that they were not guilty because the police had led
them to the site which they could not have reached without a police
escort. But Dr. Spock got the publicity he desired and the police were
able to maintain order.

Such tactics were not possible in Egypt nor are they in other
totalitarian governments. Demonstrators cannot rely on the word of a
regime which will not tolerate any dissent and whose police routinely
and brutally violate human rights. In democracies, there will be many
who oppose creating unlawful disorders, even among those supporting
the protest.


As police chief of San Jose, I had the unpleasant duty of protecting
the right of free speech for a dozen men attired in Nazi uniforms who
held a meeting in a public park during which they spewed out their
sick racial hatred and call to violence. The police department,
following court rulings, had quietly issued a permit. The media had
reported on the scheduled meeting. Unfortunately, the event got more
publicity when the Mayor and the leading candidate for mayor in a
forthcoming election both stated that the city would deny a permit to
the Nazis. Thousands of people, some still bearing tattoo numbers from
Nazi concentration camps, planned to attend to protest against the
Nazis. The potential for a riot was extremely high.

Happily, an individual who had consistently and publicly criticized
the police, told me in confidence that The Young Communists Students
League was going to show up at the rally carrying backpacks containing
solidly frozen cans of soda which would be hurled from within the
crowd. Armed with this intelligence, police officers at the entrance
to the park confiscated the soda with a promise of returning it after
the rally. Had we not been warned, the rally would undoubtedly
resulted in many injuries and widespread disorder.


Church and other community organizations, with unofficial support of
the police department, helped greatly by holding a counter
demonstration a mile distant from the Nazi rally. Although this
greatly lowered the number of people who came to oppose the Nazis,
counter demonstrators outnumbered the police by more than twenty to
one. When the Nazis began to speak from the podium, the crowd drowned
them out and a number of individuals from within the crowd threw rocks
at the dozen Nazis, in their uniforms, who cowered behind a line of
police keeping the crowd at bay.

We had carefully planned and trained for the event. Officers in
civilian clothes scattered within the crowd served as spotters and
radioed the location of the rock throwers to uniformed officer arrest
teams. The teams, in wedge formations, were able to move in quickly
and decisively to arrest and remove the ringleaders. Some of the Nazis
had picked up the rocks and thrown them back at the crowd. They were
promptly arrested and removed in handcuffs, to cheers from the crowd.
The remaining Nazis, frightened by the size and intensity of the
crowd, begged to be escorted away. Such an outcome isn’t possible in a
despotic society where the government usually viciously thwarts
demonstrations and, if they do occur, the police are neither trained
nor inclined to use minimal force to protect both protestors and

Police in dictatorships are untrained and undisciplined in dealing
with demonstrations, because the rulers they work for rely upon terror
to discourage people from assembling to protest, and brute force for
the few who dare to gather despite the threats of beatings or


The importance of pre-meetings, advance planning and training, and
good intelligence were also dramatically clear in 1976, when, as
police chief of Kansas City, Missouri, I found myself responsible for
providing protection for those attending the Republican Party’s
Presidential Nominating Convention.  The Youth International Party
(Yippies), a loose-knit, radical, anarchist group, had caused
widespread disorders in 1968 during the Democratic Presidential
Convention in Chicago. Weeks before the Chicago convention, they
announced their plans to interrupt it through widespread, violent
demonstrations. Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Police
Department matched the belligerent Yippie rhetoric by threatening the
Yippies should they dare come to Chicago.

Chicago’s confrontational response made this a national story which
resulted in attracting many thousands more young people to do combat
with the cops. Extensive media coverage of wild skirmishes between
stone throwing, traffic stopping, disorderly Yippies and tear gassing,
baton swinging brutal cops battling through Chicago streets was
thoroughly covered on television and served to draw many more angry
young people throughout the country into the fray. Some in the media
described it as a police riot. Within policing, it is known as a model
of how not to deal with demonstrations. The public was so revolted by
the spectacle that some analysts believed that it cost the Democratic
Party candidate, Hubert Humphrey, the election.


In preparation for the Kansas City Republican Convention we studied
the Yippie strategies and police responses in Chicago and the almost
as successful Yippie line of attack during the 1972 Republican
Convention in Miami. In both Chicago and Miami, the Yippies planned
and timed their attacks to achieve maximum media coverage and often
notified the media in advance of what they intended. Roving groups of
youths, well supplied with missiles and equipment to start fires and
in other ways destroy cars and businesses, used hand radios to deploy
their groups most effectively, and frequently succeeded in surprising
and overwhelming the police by the sheer size of their numbers. They
were pre-trained in methods to provoke cops into angry overreaction
which left television viewers confused as to who bore the most
responsibility for the disorders.

Consequently, each officer in Kansas City received a week’s training
in what to expect and how to react. A major obstacle to overcome was
that, despite Kansas City’s cosmopolitan character as a major city of
over a half million people, most of the police force came from rural
farm backgrounds. The cops and the city itself had never experienced
demonstrations of this size and intensity, and indeed it is doubtful
that any officer had ever seen a Yippie. During the Convention some
cops drove miles from their assignments to view the Yippies camped in
various public parks. People in the Heartland had been brought up to
respect the police, and being part of the Bible Belt found the profane
language that made up the Yippie vocabulary very offensive. We
employed a psychologist as part of the training to urge the officers
to view the event as a contest. The Yippies were masters of
provocation, and if they succeeded in getting officers to lose their
temper in front of television and other cameras, they won, and the
police lost. Officers also received training in how to distinguish
between demonstrators violating the law and those exercising their
Constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, as well as various
techniques and formations to control crowds, prevent violence, and, if
necessary, to expeditiously make arrests and transport prisoners
without depleting scarce manpower. Still, given the Yippies’ past
success in goading cops into using excessive force, and knowing well
from my New York City background just how provocative demonstrators
could be to overworked, and overtired cops. Kansa City’s 360 square
miles had to be protected, along with the Convention. Although all
days off and vacations were postponed and officers worked at least
twelve hours a day, it was doubtful that even half of the force’s 1200
cops were on duty at any one time. It was also true that many well
known people, such as incumbent President Gerald Ford, whose pardon of
Richard Nixon had made enemies, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller,
Henry Kissinger, and candidate Ronald Reagan were all potential
targets who had to be safeguarded. On occasion, we were running as
many as seventeen motorcades at the same time. One motorcycle officer
was so exhausted that he fell asleep on his bike and was injured when
he fell.


A prominent attorney who was well known for his public criticisms of
the police approached me weeks before the Convention with a novel
idea. Recognizing that the Convention would inevitably result in
charges of police brutality and illegality, Syd Willins proposed
forming a Citizens Watch of unpaid volunteers who would serve
twenty-four hours a day as observers at the site of the Convention and
demonstrations. He asked that the Police Department issue
Identification cards and armbands to the volunteers and allow them
access to all appropriate locations and to provide notice of the
locations. I was well aware that no other police chief in the country
would agree to such a proposal and that my command staff was
overwhelmingly appalled by the suggestion. Willins and I bargained
over the proposal and he ended up agreeing with my insistence that
civilian watch members voluntarily agree with a criminal history
check, so that convicted criminals were not put in a position of being
able to accuse the police of misconduct.

I spoke to each group of officers during their Convention training.
They were not happy, of course, but agreed that they would get a
fairer judgment from individual citizens than from reporters looking
for a byline. Another real value of the Citizen Watch was that it
would have more public credibility than the word of police supervisors
because it was independent of the Police Department. The existence of
the Citizen’s Watch also enabled me to solemnly inform each officer
that if he or she lost his or her temper and batted some Yippie on the
head with a baton, I would be quite sympathetic knowing, as I did, how
offensive some demonstrators were, but I would nevertheless have to
inform the District Attorney of their actions and fire them, because
their illegal actions had been observed, by independent citizens and
probably caught on camera. It didn’t make me very popular, but not a
single charge of excessive force by the police came from the hundreds
of civilian observers even though we made hundreds of arrests during
the week-long Convention. Needless to say, totalitarian regimes are
incapable of trusting their citizens to be fair and impartial, and it
is self evident that citizens of tyrannical governments would never be
confident that any accusations they made against the authorities would
go unpunished.


Ruthless, powerful dictatorships are usually capable of retaining
power, even though the Internet greatly increases dissidents’ ability
to publicize government corruption, ineptness, and human rights
violations. Yet, it is evident that the wave of protests presently
sweeping even the most tyrannical countries is likely to continue to
threaten regimes with varying degrees of freedom.

The United States enjoys the historical role of serving as the
international model of liberty and prosperity. It would be a shame if
we were to drift into policies of isolation which send a message that
change is beyond hope for oppressed people. It would be even more
disastrous, however, if we were to blunder into a course of action
that results in spreading deadly riots in the Arab world.
America must continue to vigorously promote democracy and human rights
reform even at the risk of antagonizing countries allied with us
against terrorism. Promoting mob rule as a means of triggering regime
changes, however, can create a landscape barren of allies and full of
police state governments which are mortal enemies of the United States
and freedom for their own people.