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Shadow Elite: The Egypt Crackdown -- Shades of Poland Under Martial Law

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Who are these "pro-Mubarak" supporters? As the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof writes, "it is absurd to think of this as simply 'clashes' between two rival groups. This was a violent government-sponsored crackdown....using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs."

Or perhaps they're just not dressed as police or troops, as many on the ground report and Egypt's Interior Ministry denies. The scenes yesterday and the conjecture on just what the government was engineering sent me back to the anti-regime actions I witnessed first-hand decades ago as a young anthropologist studying in Poland under martial law. There too, some agents of the regime "hid" in plain clothes, and everywhere there was speculation about "provocation" -- violence or disruptive activity on the part of the regime made to look like the other side is responsible, thus giving those in charge an excuse to crack down on the supposed troublemakers. This was an old staple from the communist playbook, one Mubarak seems to know well himself.

In communist Eastern Europe -- May 1 -- International Workers' Day, typically featured obligatory parades led by Communist Party officials. But May 1, 1982 was different. It was several months after General Wojciech Jaruzelski had declared martial law, and outlawed the Solidarity movement, the first free labor organization allowed in the Eastern Bloc. The regime cut phone lines, sealed borders, interned Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders, crushed people's hopes. But Solidarity activists took to the streets to protest martial law, just as the communists were having their parades. Thousands of peaceful protesters showed up in Central Warsaw near where I lived, without incident.

Every minute something happened, I saw how those happenings are reported through the grapevine, compared with other accounts, and become accepted fact. In authoritarian, repressive states like Poland then (and surely Egypt now) where official word is not trusted, the grapevine is the lifeblood of social action.

When the regime warned that it absolutely would not tolerate the follow-on demonstration planned for May 3, Polish Constitution Day, Solidarity activists organized through the grapevine to go ahead anyway. Mostly watching from the apartment I shared with a Polish family in central Warsaw, we saw groups of chanting demonstrators chased by water hoses and exploding tear gas and buses of demonstrators under arrest on their way to internment. Somehow we picked up on the radio instructions from police headquarters to riot police stationed around the city -- minute-by-minute details on the location of various pockets of demonstrators, and orders about how to deal with them. Riot police were instructed to block off the streets around the parliament building, and to "beat, beat, beat" the demonstrators there. Rumor had it that these forces were plied with drugs to embolden them for the task, and make them spoil for a fight.

There was plenty of chaos -- and imposters. My friend Jan -- one of the people who ended up in those buses -- told me later that during the demonstration, he and his friends were surrounded by riot police. Then some "demonstrators", who turned out to be impostors, told them there was a way out. And, as I wrote in my field notes, a whole bunch of people followed them right into a police trap.

But often those security forces in plain clothes -- those imposters -- didn't fool anyone. Even without the uniform, people remarked they could recognize government plants because they still walked like the police. And most people assumed the regime was engaging in various acts of "provocation" to justify a crackdown on Solidarity.

My friend Jan didn't return from that May 3rd protest and there was no official way to find out what had happened. Eventually, the commandante from police headquarters called Jan's mother to tell her, very matter-of-factly, that they indeed were holding her son (cruelly, she had heard this news before -- her other son was also in prison, having been picked up when martial law was declared.) Their teenage sister and I reported the fact of Jan's internment to a local Catholic parish that was keeping track of who was being carted off and to which prison. Under such circumstances, self-organization is the order of the day.

The Times mentioned that some of the pro-Mubarak forces offered people 50 Egyptian pounds to carry placards supporting the government. The paper quotes one woman's response: "Fifty pounds for my country?" This is the kind of strength I saw in Jan's mother and countless other Poles who lived for decades with their mouths shut but whose voices were finally heard. One can only hope that Egypt ends up a few decades from now as peaceful and prosperous as Poland today.

Linda Keenan edits the Shadow Elite column.