How to control the crowd

Ahram Online, Sunday 29 Jan 2012

As one year passes on Mubarak's police failure to control anger in the streets Ahram Online speaks to a crowd control expert on the textbook tactics of the police in face of large demonstrations

Egyptian Army soldiers run at protesters on Tahrir Square
Egyptian army soldiers run during clashes with protesters at Tahrir Square Photo: Reuters

Egypt’s security forces have been noticeably absent from Cairo’s street since the January 25 Revolution anniversary celebrations began on Wednesday, despite almost a million people taking to the streets. The black-clad Central Security Forces (CSF) and the army are usually heavily present during any form of mass protest, often resorting to tear gas, rubber bullets and in some cases live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Last November and December saw five-day long battles between the CSF the army and protesters — some of the most protracted fighting to take place during the ongoing Egyptian revolution. The battles were focused on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Qasr Al-Aini Street. At key moments, security forces would clear Tahrir Square with bewildering efficiency. 

Despite being secretive about their strategies, Egyptian security forces appear to be using internationally tried and tested tactics. Ahram Online spoke to an expert on crowd control to make sense of the incidents at the end of 2011.

‘The first mission of the security forces is control, either through containing, dispersing or emotion reducing,” explains Rich Filan, a risk management specialist who runs training sessions for journalists on how to deal with conflict situations. Filan has personal experience in crowd control, having served in the British army for 35 years, including managing protests in Northern Ireland.

Crowds are perceived by security forces as emotionally driven, Filan explains, so the key focus for the CSF and army in overpowering the protesters will be gauging and manipulating that emotion.

If the police and army have limited accountability, fear is one way of doing this. “Banging on shields with their truncheons or moving the shields forward is one way of intimidation,” says Filan describing a scene many have witnessed on Tahrir Square. Sound bombs and shooting in the air are also used to scare demonstrators.

One of the key methods of controlling a crowd is dispersal. “The standard theory behind it is that breaking a group into smaller pockets gives you more control as the emotion tends to die down.” The classic example would be if 10 people are screaming and shouting, and you take one of them out and put them in a room by themselves, they most likely will be quiet.

Dispersal in a square like Tahrir, Filan adds, could be done in three ways: draw, compress or block. Drawing is scattering protesters into different locations and therefore dividing them; this will be done through a full-scale charge.

The CSF usually charge when they decide to clear the whole of Tahrir Square.

During the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, on 18 November, police used long-range tear gas canisters that reached as far as the central roundabout. Protesters on the periphery of the conflict zone did not expect to be targeted. In the ensuing stampede, groups broke up and ran down Qasr El-Nil Bridge, towards 6th of October Bridge and down Talaat Harb Street. Battles continued on three fronts, but for the security forces, Filan explains, in a more manageable size.

In theory, a percentage of those in smaller groups will then leave.

Compressing is an alternative tactic. “Pushing people into each other and confining their space is a way of playing with the emotions of the crowd, with the intent to get the people at the rear to leave.”

When security forces put pressure on those at the front, protesters who are unable to ascertain what is going on on the frontline panic. The protesters will be allowed to exit but usually not to return, either by erecting control points or by arresting people, Filan explains.

Dispersal is hard to maintain in an area as large and complex as Tahrir Square. In this instance, attrition is often used. “It takes longer but the forces will let the public disorder burn out.” This could have been the thinking behind the CSF dragging the battles out on Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr Al-Aini streets for five gruelling days and nights.

The simplest tactic, however, is to block: “Blocking off and doing nothing is emotion reducing; the theory is that protesters will eventually get bored and leave.”

On the afternoon of 24 November, the army walled protesters into Tahrir. The concrete barricade was then copied on Sheikh Rehan and Qasr Al-Aini streets in December, separating the army and the police from protesters.

The focus for security forces will, however, always be on clearing Tahrir Square, because its symbolic and psychological significance, Filan adds. “Tahrir has become a place where people go to emote. Driving people out of the square is demoralising for the movement.” 

During the last days of the Qasr Al-Aini clashes, the police and army appeared at the Omar Makram Mosque entrance at 3.30am every morning and stormed the square. Despite the numbers having being reduced and there only being a handful of tents on the central roundabout, the recurrent if brief occupation of Tahrir appeared important for the security forces.

Counteracting crowd control strategies is dangerous, Filan says, as escalation is inevitable. What will happen in the coming days is impossible to predict, he concludes.

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