Mubarak's Chaos Theory: Did It Backfire?


The leader fed disorder in an attempt to delegitimize the protesters among most Egyptians

Mubarak protest on fire.jpg

"They are trying to create chaos," said Mohamed Ahmed, one of the Cairo protesters, "This is what Mubarak wants."

Usually, it's the revolutionaries who deliberately instigate disorder. In the early 20th century, the Russian revolutionaries even had a slogan: "The worse, the better."

Mayhem delegitimized the regime. The greater the disorder, the brighter were the prospects for the revolution. The radicals wanted failed harvests and poverty. They wanted government repression and bloodshed. They wanted to see the roots of society ripped up.

More recently, al-Qaeda in Iraq adhered to the same strategy, hoping to foment a full-scale civil war. In the smoking ruins of Iraq, they could construct a brave new world.

As W.B. Yeats wrote in his poem "The Second Coming," when anarchy is loosed upon the world, "things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

But in Egypt there's been a role reversal. In the main, the protesters have shown restraint. The Atlantic's Graeme Wood reported that Tahrir Square in Cairo "reminded me of Burning Man," with children getting their faces painted, and protesters clearing up the trash.

Instead, it's the regime that deliberately instigated disorder. The police were withdrawn from the streets of Egypt. Rumors were rife of official encouragement for looting and vandalism.

And then the regime hurled an army of thugs and camel cavalry against the protesters -- Tiananmen Square meets Mad Max. One witness to the violence said: "Mubarak lit the world on fire."

What theory might lie behind the chaos? What could the regime possibly hope to gain?

The use of disorder as a tactic is testament to the success of the protests. Instability in Egypt won't delegitimize the regime -- its legitimacy is already shot. Mubarak is a lame duck who has pledged to leave office within months.

Revolutionaries in Russia had a slogan: "The worse, the better."

Rather, the anarchy is designed to delegitimize the protesters -- the "turbaned clerics, businessmen from wealthy suburbs, film directors and well-to-do engineers."

It's the revolutionaries who have the upper hand. But with power comes responsibility.

The regime hopes that Egyptians will blame the malcontents for the ongoing violence. After all, Mubarak has offered to step down. And still the radicals are unsatisfied.

The people may choose security over liberty. Fearing the dark side of revolution, Egyptians will turn to the father of the nation for protection. The military could abandon its posture of aloof neutrality, and side with the government. Mubarak would then orchestrate an orderly regime change.

His prize is not staying in power, but leaving on his own terms. And Mubarak's retirement is very much up for grabs: Egyptian luxury, a foreign sanctuary, or a jail cell.

But the strategy appears to have backfired badly. Egypt's prime minister apologized for the fighting in Cairo, describing it as a "fatal error." He added that, "When investigations reveal who is behind this crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise they will be held accountable and will be punished for what they did."

Meanwhile, the European leaders issued a joint statement opposing the violence and calling for a political transition that "must start now." Perhaps most importantly, reports suggest that the army has lost patience, not with the anti-regime forces, but with the pro-government protesters.

It seems the Russian revolutionaries were right: For the regime, the worse is usually for the worse.

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,, and on NPR.
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