The Massacre in Cairo Isn't 'Egypt's Tiananmen Square'

Despite similarities between the two, the historical context between Egypt in 2013 and China in 1989 are vastly different -- and that's what ultimately matters.

Egypt's current massacre has triggered comparisons to China's Tiananmen Square conflict ((Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters))

The tense stand-off in Egypt between the military government and protesters erupted into violence this week, with the latest reports indicating that troops have killed over 600 people in Cairo. My colleague Olga Khazan yesterday wrote that, in terms of state-on-protester violence, the crackdown may be the world's deadliest since China's Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989. And, on point, articles have already referred to Cairo's violence as "Egypt's Tiananmen Square."

The comparison hasn't gone unnoticed in China, where state media has broadcast round-the-clock footage from Egypt since the killing began. Online, as this roundup by Offbeat China is any indication, reaction has varied from sympathy for the protests and relief that China doesn't have to deal with such instability. One writer even wondered: "If this happened in China, then it'd be called a huge human rights violation and China would be sanctioned. Now that it happened in Egypt, it's a hiccup on way to democracy. WTF?"

He has a point. Immediately after Deng Xiaoping ordered the People's Liberation Army to disperse the protests, China was subject to widespread international condemnation, economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation, costing Beijing a chance to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. In contrast, while world leaders have roundly condemned Egypt's generals, there's been no talk of punishment akin to China's. In fact, there's little reason to believe that U.S. will even suspend its annual aid package to the country, valued at $1.3 billion.

Given the obvious similarities between Beijing and Cairo, what accounts for the difference in the reaction to the two cases? Here are a few explanations:

The Tiananmen Uprising arose suddenly, while Egypt was smoldering for two years.

Although Chinese cities had engaged in scattered anti-government protests since the mid-1980s, the cause of the 1989 conflict was the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a popular refomist politician, that April. Public mourning for Hu morphed into a sustained movement against Party rule, with students and urban workers alike demanding political liberalization. Ultimately, Deng Xiaoping decided to turn the military against the protesters on the night of June 4th, and before long China basically returned to normal. The entire crisis lasted for six weeks.

Egypt, on the other hand, has experienced non-stop instability since Hosni Mubarak resigned as president in February 2011. The election of Mohamed Morsi as president -- hailed worldwide as a major democratic breakthrough -- only exacerbated existing political divisions within the country and ultimately forced the Egyptian military to overthrow Morsi in a coup.

While this week's killings mark the worst episodes of violence in Egypt's post-Mubarak era, they reinforced the sense that the country is fundamentally unstable, and such incidents aren't terribly surprising.

China's protesters were more sympathetic than Egyptian ones.

Not all of the Chinese who massed in Tiananmen Square wanted to overthrow the Communist Party; many, in fact, sough more modest reforms like being able to choose a profession. But Westerners idealized the protesters as liberal democratic revolutionaries, a sentiment that only grew when protesters built an crude copy of the Statue of Liberty in the square. To more seasoned observers, China's youth weren't an existentialist threat to the state, and as Sam Crane writes, the crackdown was "an example of a very firmly rooted regime employing a small fraction of its well organized repressive capacity to put down a limited protest that did not fundamentally threaten the bases of state power." The outrage over Tiananmen wasn't just over the numbers killed; it also reflected a belief that the tragedy was avoidable, a belief held by China's then-premier Zhao Ziyang, whose opposition to the crackdown resulted in a subsequent purge and house arrest.

Meanwhile, Egypt's protesters are demonstrating in support of a politician, Mohamed Morsi, who fits nobody's idea of Thomas Jefferson. Despite receiving only limited support from Egypt's voters, Morsi acted as if he held a broad mandate, in effect moving to undermine democratic institutions in order to entrench his and the Muslim Brotherhood's hold on power. Morsi's base of support also included Egypt's Islamist population, whose illiberal views on politics and religion put off would-be Western sympathizers. Whatever their other merits, Egypt's pro-Morsi protesters are demonstrating to restore a president who had failed to govern effectively in the first place. China's demonstrators, by contrast, were untainted by an association with an ineffective regime.

Egypt is grouped with the whole bloody mess that is the Middle East. China isn't.

In 1993, Robert Kaplan, a journalist and occasional Atlantic contributor, published his book Balkan Ghosts, an account of how political turmoil in the region reflected tensions that had existed for centuries. The book deeply influenced President Bill Clinton and was rumored to explain why he initially hesitated to intervene when the former Yugoslavia erupted into a bloody ethnic war.

The sense that conflict in a particular country or region is deeply entrenched, and thus immutable, has similarly shaped perceptions of the Middle East. Egypt's chaotic post-Mubarak era has happened alongside a ghastly civil war in Syria, revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, and the usual turbulence in Israel and Palestine. Though no less tragic, Egypt's massacre fits a general narrative of a region in constant turmoil.

The Tiananmen Square massacre, on the other hand, defied its historical context; that same year, Communist regimes across Eastern Europe fell peacefully, and within two years the Soviet Union would also collapse. Though the Tiananmen Square massacre happened before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became, in retrospect, an outlier in the historical context of its era. And for this reason, the Chinese government's killing of its protesters seemed especially outrageous.


Comparing the two encounters an obvious caveat; the Egyptian crisis is unfolding as we speak, while we've had 24 years to digest the impact of Tiananmen Square. But it's worth remembering that the world rarely reacts proportionally to crises that, on the surface, seem equally grave.