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.

Mass Killing in Egypt

Let’s define a state-led mass killing as an episode in which state security forces or groups acting at their behest deliberately kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group in a relatively short period of time—weeks, months, or maybe even several years. This is a paraphrased version of the definition my colleague Ben Valentino developed for a U.S. government-funded research project, so using it allows us to identify and compare many episodes over time, as I did in another recent post.

Since World War II, nearly all of the state-led mass killings that have occurred around the world have followed one of three basic scenarios, all of them involving apparent threats to rulers’ power.

First and most common, state security forces fighting an insurgency or locked in a civil war kill large numbers of civilians whom they accuse of supporting their rivals, or sometimes just kill indiscriminately. The genocide in Guatemala is an archetypal example of this scenario. In some cases, like Rwanda, the state also enlists militias or even civilians to assist in that killing.

Second, rulers confronting budding threats to their power—usually a nonviolent popular uprising or coup plot—violently repress and attack their challengers in an attempt to quash the apparent threat. The anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-1966 fit this pattern. In rare cases, like North Korea today, just the possibility of such a threat suffices to draw the state into killing large numbers of civilians. More often, state repression of nonviolent uprisings succeeds in quashing the challenge with fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths, as happened in China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Burma in 2007.

Third, rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power. The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.

What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency. The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance. What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

One of the many rationalizations offered for the July 3 coup was the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had used violence to suppress its political rivals during and after mass protests against Morsi last December. People were right to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood over that thuggery, which was arguably a nascent version of the second scenario described above. In calling on the military to deliver them from that threat, however, some of those challengers seem to have struck a Faustian bargain that is now producing killings on a much grander scale.

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