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

Share
Related Topics

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.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?