Yesterday was the biggest day yet for the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and around Egypt. Hundreds of thousands poured into the center of Cairo, and traffic came to a near-complete standstill between the hours of 1 and 7 pm. This time, the aim was to oust, not just Hosni Mubarak but his newly-appointed V-P, Omar Soleiman, and his whole cabinet. It was to be expected: Soleiman has announced that he would not lift emergency laws, the same martial law under which, for the past thirty years, Mubarak and his regime have squashed all dissent with draconian measures. Soleiman added insult to injury: Egyptians, he declared, were not yet ready for democracy.
Mubarak needed these emergency laws, he has claimed for thirty years, to hold Islamic extremists in check. But it wasn’t only the Islamists that Mubarak’s dread police could arrest, detain, and brutalize with impunity. It was anyone and everyone, and when the sons and daughters of the middle class were brutalized in turn, the seeds of revolution were laid.
A few years ago, a young man and his fiancée, traveling to a Red Sea vacation resort, fell afoul of a police checkpoint. The boy was dragged out, beaten and sexually humiliated before his fiancée and his friends. Then he was forced to crawl, on hands and knees, and lick the boots of a circle of police officers standing over him, while he begged for mercy. Meanwhile the police video-taped their own brutality, and threatened the boy, if he complained, to post the video on youtube. Threatening their victims with public shaming is a regular tactic of the police to ensure silence.
But in this case, the boy’s father convinced him to report his ordeal. The police promptly posted the video, thereby incriminating themselves. The story had both a happy and a tragic ending: on the one hand the boy survived the public shaming, his fiancée stood by him, and he celebrated his wedding a few months later. On the other hand the police officers incriminated in the video were sentenced only to a couple of months suspension, after which they returned to duty.
That incident was the precursor to the death of Khalid Sa’eed, a young Alexandrian who criticized the regime on his blog, and who was arrested and died under interrogation. His case gave rise to mass demonstrations, and eventually to the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Sa’eed,” which was one of the main organizing tools of the original demonstration on January 25. A generation of young Egyptians had reached a boiling point. It is no coincidence that Police Day, January 25th, was the date chosen to launch the uprising.
Anyone watching Egypt knew that it must blow up, and blow up soon. The revolution this time is a revolution of middle-class young people fed up with a police state and empowered by internet and media. It is not a revolution of Islamists or Communists, but if this one fails the next one could well be.