There, now you know the feeling. Dignity. We are all Egyptian today.
But when the euphoria fades, remember that Hosni Mubarak wasn’t actually Adolf Hitler. He was but the face of a brutish regime, the headless torso of which remains, more or less intact.
The Egyptian police state came with three distinct varieties of Mukhabarat, or secret police, the mere mention of which sends shudders through the Arab world. And one branch answers to the Egyptian military, which now is in charge of whatever comes next.
And that military, so beloved by so many in Egypt, also operates as a self-enriching state-within-a-state by dint of its massive business interests, which some estimate could be worth a quarter or more of Egypt’s total GDP. Senior military brass have their own billions at stake, amassed in ways unlikely to pass the scrutiny of an International Court of Justice, should it ever come to that.
Then there is the until now ruling National Democratic Party, with a membership of two million — another self-enriching entity that tends to live large at the expense of everyone else.
And finally, the Interior Ministry, with a staff of 1.5 million people, about three times that of the army itself. That’s where the domestic Mukhabarat resides — and with near certainty, the home of the thugs who did battle with the defenceless street protesters at Tahrir Square during one brutal night last week.
Interior is also the political home of the cops, including those who tortured to death 28-year-old Khaled Said, whose death inspired the Facebook page that sparked the revolution.
Egypt, one hopes, will figure it all out in time, ultimately proving the true historic heft of the transformation we witnessed Friday. But more than a few Egyptologists wonder now precisely how. And it is not simply a question of teeing up things for free and fair elections at some point down the road. Egypt will need its police before then. Police that punch and kick as part of their everyday business.
“What will happen to the police? The Egyptians say, ‘We don’t want you torturing us.’ But it is a tricky issue to bring them back into public life,” said Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University and author of Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt.
“The police became so politicized after the murder of Khaled Said, which makes it that much more complicated.”
Comparisons to the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq come to mind — but the comparisons only go so far. Hugely different circumstances prevailed, starting with a U.S.-led invasion versus an amazingly non-violent, made-in-Egypt uprising.
But when the Americans took Baghdad it was clean sweep. “Debaathification” — the purging of anyone linked to the Baath Party regime — is seen today as a massive error that only deepened Iraq’s agonies since 2003.
“The lessons from Iraq and elsewhere suggest that some sort of reconciliation and reincorporation is best,” said Shehata. “People connected in any way to the Egyptian regime fear they will be completely shut out. So you hope the opposition are able to be magnanimous, for lack of a better word. There needs to be justice — but there needs also to be some kind of orderly incorporation to piece together the Egypt of the future.”
Anyone who has bounced around the Arab world for any length of time knows not all police states are created equal. Mubarak’s Egypt was bad. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was worse. And probably nothing in the region approaches the horrors of Syria, circa 1982, when the infamous army massacre at Hama cost an estimated 20,000 lives.
Mubarak allowed his cell phone-toting people satellite TV, but rounded up the correspondents when it suited him. Saddam was far less open to such liberties. No mobile system existed in Iraq prior to his fall. And to be caught with an illegal satellite dish was an offence punishable by six months in prison. Or forever, if the interrogators of the dreaded mukhabarat said so.
But with the pain so fresh — YouTube is churning now with video evidence of atrocities like the point-blank execution of an unarmed Tahrir Square protester by black-uniformed policemen — any reckoning will be among the most difficult of many challenges Egypt’s new army overseers must now confront.
But on a day shot through with so much sheer euphoria, that is tomorrow’s worry. And whatever doubts anyone has about Egypt’s ability to cope, it is worth remembering that Middle East experts the world over never imagined a day such as this.
“Many Arabs had begun to question whether freedom was in the DNA of the Arabs,” said an astonished Fouad Ajami, head of the Mideast program at Johns Hopkins University. “Today we have our answer.”