'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Egypt and the Monopoly on Violence

States, 'lay claim to the "monopoly of legitimate physical violence" within a particular territory'
-- Max Weber, 'Politics as a Vocation', R. Livingstone (trans.), The Vocation Lectures (Hackett publ.), 2004, p.33

The police have retreated from the front-line of the protests as the army step in to protect key installations including the Egyptian Museum and gangs have apparently tried to free inmates in at least four jails across the country. As an internal instrument of repression, and tool of the government, the police are seen as directly responsible for prosecuting the internal clampdown on dissidents over the last thirty years. Egyptian jails are notorious for systemic, inhumane violence against domestic inmates. 

So the events of the fifth night come as little surprise. With the government's grip on the country slipping, the police fear retribution and retaliation will come as the power transfers to the population in that moment following the collapse of government. The police have dropped back to their departments, manning these buildings in force. 

The fourth part of the equation of state is coming into force. First the population, then the government, the police, now the army. It is important to see how the army are perceived in Egypt. Whilst the police are a much despised government tool of repression, the army represent a cohesive force that protect against external threat and thus garner much more support among the population. Correctly, the army have been conducing a show of force in the hours before the curfew on the sixth day, but they are not as yet presenting offensive measures against the protestors. 

This throws the nation into a new dynamic. The government has now lost its monopoly on violence, since the police have retreated, leading to anarchy and bands of civilians grouped together to defend property. The army now operate in the space between government and population. They can open dialogue with either the protestors or the state, but their support is the sine qua non of a return to order from this Hobbesian 'state of nature' that threatens the country. As of today, with Mubharak apparently sheltering at an army base, it appears that the army and government are operating together but that relationship can change. 

A second scenario is plausible - the army could assume power, preventing the 'void' which Secretary of State Clinton warns against in an interview with Fox News. El Baradei needs to provide a more visual figurehead over the next twenty-four hours and begin talks with the army. Large scale retribution against the police could create a long-term destabilisation of civil society. Expect the consequences of these prison break-out attempts to receive larger analysis in the world media in the coming weeks. 

Unnerving to the population - the government has shut down the office of al-Jazeera in the capital and revoked its license to operate in the country. Protestors fear this is to limit the media exposure over the coming night to a ferocious clamp down on rioters from the army, who have moved in force to the capital ahead of the 8pm curfew. Lack of access to internet and mobile networks further serves to limit the dissemination of information, especially visual, from the cities to the world media. 

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