Egypt’s Mass Killing in Historical Perspective

On Thursday, I wrote a post arguing that Egypt was sliding into an episode of state-led mass killing. Now, three days later, it seems clear that Egypt’s post-coup rulers have carried their country across that threshold. According to a story in this morning’s New York Times, the crackdown that began a few days ago “so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.”

This puts Egypt in rare and sullied company. Since World War II, the world has only seen onsets of about 110 of these episodes, and fewer than a handful of those onsets occurred after 2000: in Sudan in 2003 (Darfur) and again in 2011 (South Kordofan);  in Sri Lanka in 2009; and in Syria since 2011.

State repression is routine, but it rarely escalates and concentrates in this form. When it does, though, the escalation often occurs quickly, as it has in Egypt. Governments rarely back into mass killing.

Soon after Egypt’s crackdown began, lots of observers drew comparisons to Tienanmen Square. In fact, the violence in Egypt is probably already worse. We don’t know exactly how many protesters were killed in China in 1989, just as we’ll never know exactly how many have been and will be killed in Egypt in this campaign and whatever ensues. Still, most estimates of the toll in China in 1989 include fewer than 1,000 deaths and more like several hundred.

The prospect that Egypt’s crackdown is already more lethal than China’s is less surprising—though no less appalling—when we put the two cases into the proper reference sets. In my previous post on this topic, I argued that mass killings generally follow one of three story lines: 1) attempts by incumbent rulers to “drain the sea” in civil wars; 2) attempts by incumbent rulers to suppress emerging threats to their power; and 3) attempts by newly installed governments to destroy the rivals they have recently supplanted. China’s 1989 crackdown probably doesn’t qualify as a mass killing in the strict sense on which my data are based (at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians killed), but if it did, it would fall squarely in the second set. Egypt’s crackdown, by contrast, lands clearly into the third set.

In fact, most of the brutal crackdowns by incumbent rulers against emerging challengers that easily spring to mind fall short of this macabre 1,000 threshold, and with reason. Cases like Teinanmen and Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan suggest that it’s comparatively easy for entrenched authoritarian regimes to quash nascent popular uprisings. Even the rare occasions when nonviolent movements succeed at bringing thousands of citizens into the streets fail more often than not to force a regime change (see here and here).

What tend to be much bloodier are efforts by putschists and recently victorious revolutionaries to consolidate their power after toppling a well-organized rival. Apparently, it’s much tougher to shove a genie back into a bottle than it is to keep the bottle from opening in the first place. Instead of focusing on Tienanmen, we should be looking to cases like Argentina’s “dirty war” and the civil war that erupted in Algeria after its 1991 coup for clues about the paths Egypt might now follow and the toll that violence could take.

Finally, I’m also seeing various claims that the violence by state security forces against Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters doesn’t constitute a “massacre” because the Brotherhood has also used violence, especially in some recent attacks on Christian churches. I don’t accept that equivalency. The sit-ins and marches and attacks on churches may be associated with a single organization, but they apparently don’t involve the same crowds, and virtually all of the dead so far have come from gatherings that were primarily nonviolent. If police and soldiers were only using violence to suppress attacks by civilians on other civilians, we might decry any disproportionality, but we would not call it a massacre. When snipers fire into marching crowds and burn tents with protesters still in them, however, we are right to utter that word. Guilt by association is a slender filament to start, and it cannot justify the indiscriminate use of lethal violence against unarmed protesters.

Leave a comment


  1. Great writing, Jay. Really informative. Good political science that helps put the crackdown in perspective. Thanks.

  2. gregorylent

     /  August 18, 2013

    for me the most important lesson from this … changing the guy in the chair does NOTHING to change the collective consciousness of the culture

  3. Grant

     /  August 18, 2013

    In other words whether or not the other faction was violent is less relevant than whether or not it is well organized and presents a serious challenge for control of the government. However I wouldn’t discard the possibility that the generals at the top may have biases that lead them to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the attacks, even if it’s possible that they would have ordered these mass killings anyway.

  4. Jay – Is #3 any different if it is attempts by newly installed (and recently supplanted) governments to destroy the rivals they have recently supplanted. Because simple version of Egypt has been: military/Mubarak then military/SCAF (post-Mubarak) and then Morsi/MB and then military/Sisi. Does it matter if the newly installed govt was itself recently supplanted? To put it another way, the current military-led Egyptian govt also makes me think of incumbency (#2).

    • You’re right that these scenarios aren’t always as neatly distinct as listing them implies, and there may be better ways to categorize trajectories to mass killing. What led me to identify Egypt right now with the third track instead of the second is the scale of the MB’s organization, which greatly exceeds what you’d see in an entrenched authoritarian regime that the MB wasn’t leading. The space the MB has had to organize over the past two years have made it a more formidable rival than it was under Mubarak, and that strength means it will take more brutal and sustained repression to break it than it would have just a few years ago. In other words, it’s not so much the fact of Morsi having held office as it is the expansion of political and civil liberties over the past two years that puts Egypt on the third path instead of the second.

  5. Jim

     /  August 19, 2013

    Nice piece. Also, there are indications that at least some attacks against churches were perpetrated by pro-coup mobs and that some Muslim Brotherhood groups have been protecting churches. See and

  6. adnan

     /  August 19, 2013

    it seems that u have got it all wrong as u r repeating what is said in the europian news…there r no peacefull demonstrations in egypt ..they contain men with guns and they shoot on us for me i hve been attacked by them on the bridge..they dont differ between muslem nd cristian ..we r all againest brotherhood…by the way ..r u sure u hve read histroy coz all i know about china is that it was the most big massacre at its time..and its more than 20 000 …speaking of kills about russia and stalin and china and how many died at those days…how about turkey now and how they finish takseem protest violently…dont speak of something u dont live it as we do

  7. yusri

     /  August 20, 2013

    The Muslim brotherhood is one of the most organized fascist organizations still existing in the world. They had threatened that if they were removed from power , they will use scorched earth policy to run havoc to the political scene in Egypt. They attacked a lot of public buildings and police stations. Killed police officers in the most barbaric manner slaughtering them and pouring sulfuric acid on them while still alive. And attacked many churches and christian establishments including schools, orphanages. They even torched houses , shops, cars of very simple poor families in poor villages and small towns in upper Egypt. I won’t shed any tears for them and don’t ask me to.

    • Grant

       /  August 21, 2013

      I won’t get into arguments about who did what in Egypt (mostly because I have certain suspicions about some of these comments) but I will ask that people only call an organization “fascist” if it actually meets the general criteria of a fascist organization. It’s a minor peeve of mine.

  8. From a high-level mission to Egypt in late August 2013, the International Commission of Jurists concluded that, “The use of live ammunition to disperse the sit-ins and against pro-Morsi protesters has resulted in the deaths of more than 1000 individuals, most of which appear to amount to unlawful killings.” See:

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