In the Arena

Tehran or Moscow or Tiananmen?

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As Massimo notes below, we are reaching a crucial moment in the Egyptian convulsion. There is a major demonstration scheduled for tomorrow–and a major question: which way does the army go, for Mubarak or for the protesters?

We’ve been here before. We’ve seen the tanks stand down, as they did in Moscow in 1991–when Boris Yeltsin savored his finest moment, using a Red Army tank as a podium, as he, in effect, declared Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union.

We’ve seen the opposite, too–in Tehran, two years ago, when the government’s religious police spared no mercy in destroying the street protests.

But the version that resonates, at least for me, is Tiananmen Square in 1989. There are many uncomfortable similarities. The troops stood down for days before the massacre. There were famous images–the young man standing in front of the tank, whose crew couldn’t bring itself to run him down. There were the young leaders of the protest; there was the Chinese statue of liberty. And then there was the blackout. Journalists were banned from the Square–and in the darkness, the massacre commenced. To this day, there are no hard figures for how many were killed. (The George H.W. Bush Administration, a bastion of foreign policy realism, remained very much on the sidelines.)

And now we have the tanks in another square. They’ve been there for days, refusing to take sides. But I suspect that tomorrow is the moment of truth. The reporters have been beaten; as I write this, there are no live television cameras streaming from Tahrir Square–we may be back to cell phones and tweets tomorrow, as we were in Tehran. Or not.

It is impossible to know which way the Army will turn–but its decision is the crucial one. I was hopeful, for a few days, that the strong military-to-military ties between the U.S. and Egypt would make the Egyptian army a moderating force; it certainly has semed to be, the past few days. But the journalists have been beaten, and Mubarak doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and if there is one thing Generals hate, it’s chaos.