Robert Fisk: Three weeks in Egypt show the power of brutality – and its limits

As he leaves Cairo, our writer reflects on the lessons of an extraordinary uprising for protesters and police alike
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After three weeks of watching the greatest Arab nation hurling a preposterous old man from power, I'm struck by something very odd. We have been informing the world that the infection of Tunisia's revolution spread to Egypt – and that near-identical democracy protests have broken out in Yemen, Bahrain and in Algeria – but we've all missed the most salient contamination of all: that the state security police who prop up the power of the Arab world's autocrats have used the same hopeless tactics of savagery to crush demonstrators in Sanaa, Bahrain and Algiers as the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators tried so vainly to employ against their own pro-democracy protestors.

Just as the non-violent millions in Cairo learnt from Al-Jazeera and from their opposite numbers in Tunis – even down to the emails from Tunisia urging Egyptians to cut lemons in half and eat them to avoid the effects of tear-gas – so the state security thugs in Egypt, presumably watching the same programmes, have used precisely the same brutality against the crowds as their colleagues in Tunis. Incredible, when you come to think about it. The cops in Cairo saw the cops in Tunis bludgeoning government opponents to a bloody mess and – totally ignoring the fact that this led to Ben Ali's downfall – went into copy-cat mode.

Having had the pleasure of standing next to these state security warriors in the streets of Cairo, I can attest their tactics from personal experience. First, the uniformed police confronted the demonstrators. Then their ranks parted to allow the baltagi – the former policemen, drug-addicts and ex-prisoners – to run forward and strike the protesters with sticks, police coshes and iron crowbars. Then the criminals retreated to police lines while the cops doused the demonstrators with thousands of tear-gas canisters (again, made in the US). In the end, as I watched with considerable satisfaction, the protesters simply overwhelmed the state security men and their mafiosi.

But what happens when I turn on Al-Jazeera to see where we should travel next? On the streets of Yemen are state security police baton-charging crowds of Sanaa's pro-democracy demonstrators then parting ranks to allow plain-clothes thugs to attack the protestors with sticks, police coshes, iron bars and pistols. And the moment the cop-criminals retreat, the Yemeni police douse the crowds with tear-gas rounds. A few minutes later, I am watching Algerian cops batoning the crowds, allowing plain-clothes men to race forward with crow-bars and coshes, then spraying tear-gas across the streets. Then Bahrain where – I don't need to tell you, do I? – cops baton the demonstrators and slop thousands of tear-gas rounds into the men and women with such promiscuity that the police themselves, overcome by the gas, retch speechless on to the road. Weird, isn't it?

But no, I suspect not. For years, the secret services of these countries have been mimicking their mates for one simple reason: because their intelligence capos have been swapping tips for years. Torture tips, too. The Egyptians learnt how to use electricity in their desert prisons far more forcefully on genitals after a friendly visit from lads based at the Chateauneuf police station in Algiers (who specialise in pumping water into men until they literally burst apart). When I was in Algiers last December, the head of Tunisian state security dropped by for a fraternal visit. Just as Algierians visited Syria back in 1994 to find out how Hafez el-Assad dealt with the 1982 Muslim uprising in Hama: simple – slaughter the people, blow up the city, leave the corpses of innocent and guilty for the survivors to see. Which is what le pouvoir then did to the vicious and armed Islamists as well as their own people.

It was infernal, this open university of torture, a constant round of conferences and first-hand "interrogation" accounts by the sadists of the Arab world, with the constant support of the Pentagon and its scandalous "strategic co-operation" manuals, not to mention the enthusiasm of Israel. But there was a vital flaw in these lectures. If the people once – just once – lost their fear, and rose up to crush their oppressors, the very system of pain and frightfulness would become its own enemy, its ferocity the very reason for its collapse. This is what happened in Tunis. This is what happened in Egypt.

It's an instructive lesson. Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen are all following the identical policies of brutality that failed Messrs Ben Ali and Mubarak. That's not the only strange parallel between the overthrow of these two titans. Mubarak really thought on Thursday night that the people would suffer another five months of his rule. Ben Ali apparently thought much the same.

What all this proves is that the dictators of the Middle East are infinitely more stupid, more vicious, more vain, more arrogant, more ridiculous than even their own people realised. Ghengis Khan and Lord Blair of Isfahan rolled into one.