Mubarak gets a crackdown which he can deny
Have we witnessed an effective authoritarian response to people power today in Cairo's Tahrir Square?
Sending club wielding gangs of "supporters" into action has denied the pro-democracy protestors the kind of iconic image of oppression that come out of China when a man stood in front of a column of tanks in 1989.
But like many of a Western mindset, I supposed that uniformed servants of the state, like the black-clad Interior Ministry forces who we saw in action last week, might form the visible face of a crackdown.
It is clearer now why protestors in Tahrir Square had recently been searching those joining the protest, looking for weapons or police ID cards.
They were not being paranoid, they understood that President Hosni Mubarak and his newly installed vice-president, former intelligence boss Omar Suleiman, had some other options at their disposal.
The use of agents provocateurs to discredit political opponents by sparking acts of violence goes back centuries.
What would be new though is using entire crowds to clear the streets of demonstrators, when the fact that the world is watching makes it impossible to do that with tanks or riot police.
With these "supporters" Mr Mubarak can deny that he has ordered a crackdown.
He can also claim to Western governments who urge him to rein them in, that they are not under his personal control and that his critics are exhibiting double standards about street protest - it is fine when they are anti-Mubarak, but not when they support him.
Of course the arrival of this new force on the streets has infuriated pro-democracy protestors. Many are predicting that it could lead to an ugly escalation in violence.
As night fell in Cairo, the air was crackling with gunfire as the army fired "warning shots".
The fact that the army today issued a statement urging the anti-Mubarak crowds to go home begins to look like part of a joined up strategy.
The anti-Mubarak campaign may well be tempted to use more force in response to today's developments - and there are some signs that this is happening spontaneously in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.
But if street violence is met with counter violence, then Egypt's security bosses would have their excuse for a more conventional type of crackdown - and will be able to cite "growing anarchy" as their excuse for doing so.