Why Egypt's Protests Could Fail Like Tiananmen Square's

As the details of the tragic violence unfolding in Egypt continue to come to light, (the latest reports indicate a death toll of 525 and rising while President Obama has cancelled U.S. joint military exercises), it remains to be seen exactly what prompted such massive violence in the streets of Cairo. The initial trigger appears to be a government response to several weeks of mass sit-ins in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. 

The use of the sit-in tactic employed by pro-Morsi protesters has led some to draw parallels to other historic sit-ins in which activists faced violent crackdowns after planting themselves in public squares to demand change. While sit-ins are inherently non-violent, they have a scattered and relatively violent history. 

A day before violence erupted in the streets of Cairo, Erica Chenoweth wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs entitled "Why Sit-Ins Succeed or Fail." With eerie predictive power, she explained that sit-ins run a particularly high risk of inciting violence. The protests in Egypt confirmed this days later.

A "sit-in" refers to situations in which protesters seat themselves in city centers, buildings, and public spaces to demand political change. The protesters usually stay until they are evicted, arrested, or their demands are met. Chenoweth draws comparisons between the protestors in Egypt and the activists who occupied China's Tienanmen Square, the protests on the Philippines' Epifaino de los Santos Avenue against President Ferdinand Marcos, and the sit-ins during the U.S. civil rights era and those in opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Chenoweth has not been alone in drawing these comparisons. Echoing her line of tricky historical analogy, writers in the Guardian wrote an article entitled, "Military Crackdown: Egypt's Tienanmen Square" on Wednesday. BBC news labelled a piece of footage, "Cairo Protester Tackles Tanks Like Tienanmen Square."

These headlines comparing Tienanmen Square to Egypt can be problematic because they ignore the complex intricacies of the situation unfolding in Egypt. They assume sides by taking a heart-wrenching moment in history and applying its political trappings to different contexts.

Still, while many details of the violence in Egypt remain unclear, some parallels do exist between the cases. In both cases, there are discrepancies between information provided by the government and that provided by media sources regarding death tolls. Also, police and military crackdowns suddenly provoked an eruption of violence upon the masses in Egypt and China. (It is important to note that some 43 security forces have been reported dead in the chaos.)

The seemingly violent turn on an inherently non-violent tactic is not, unfortunately, rare in the history of sit-ins.

"Like many other methods that are concentrated in specific public spaces," Chenoweth writes, "Sit-ins can make participants quite vulnerable to repression," despite their inherently non-violent approach. "The longer sit-ins go on, the riskier a strategy they become for the protesters," she writes, citing the necessary amount of time and energy sit-in protesters must devote to the can leave sit-in movements demographically homogeneous.  This can weaken their cross-cutting legitimacy and provoke harsh government crack-downs.

Still, sit-ins can have tactical benefits. They demonstrate resolve, encourage media-frenzy, and can effectively force a regime to make a move. But one study of nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 found that no one tactic of civil resistance alone has led to change. Skillfully sequenced resistance movements generally need to engage broad-based, well-coordinated efforts using a range of tactics such as boycotts and strikes to avoid repression and make an impact. 

Studies like these can not fully capture the complexity and diversity of the tactic. Protests in the streets of Egypt this week have a unique story related to Islamism, Egyptian politics, and the country's Arab Spring that must be properly understood as the details of the tragedy become apparent. But, while this situation is not a repeat of history, it does provoke some meaningful parallels worth bringing to light.