Friday morning in Cairo began as a battle between the protestors and the security forces. In the evening, the Interior Ministry ordered their men to withdraw and by night, the police had disappeared from the streets. All weekend, throughout Egypt the tens of thousands of armed men that normally provide security were gone.
On the streets of Cairo we see a confrontation, not only between the Mubarak regime and anti-government protestors, but also between two conceptions of human nature. For Thomas Hobbes, we are self-interested atomistic beings who, without the fear of an all-powerful state, will inevitably steal whatever we can from each other, causing society to descend into a hellish “war of all against all.” The more optimistic Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, a 19th century anarchist, instead emphasises our intrinsic tendency towards “mutual aid.” For Hobbes, the absence of overwhelming state power makes life nasty, brutish, and short. For Kropotkin, it organically creates cooperative organisations.
Many conspiracy-minded Egyptians suggest that Mubarak withdrew the police hoping to create anarchy. His aim, according to this view, was to so frighten Egyptians with the sight of anarchy that elite sectors of the populace would demand a crackdown and so allow the president to save his regime.
But if that was indeed Mubarak’s plan, so far it doesn’t seem to be working. Yes, looters have taken advantage of the absence of police, and yes, thousands of prisoners have escaped from jail. But citizens of Cairo have pulled together, creating self-protection groups that, armed with knives and clubs, have for the most part successfully defended their neighbourhoods from criminals. Foreign residents tell stories of being protected by strangers who insist on walking them home safely. Looters are handed over to the military for punishment.
Absence of order can go either way. In 1977, a blackout in New York resulted in smashed windows and television sets liberated from stores throughout the city. In 2003 the blackout instead generated all-night parties as New Yorkers invited strangers into their homes. The fall of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing hell of civil war Iraq certainly convinced me that Hobbes was onto something; that the only thing worse than an all-powerful state is its absence. Thankfully, in Egypt this weekend, the…