The Dam Bursts in Egypt

I’m not in Egypt, and I wish I was. Here’s a piece I wrote for Slate.com on the exhilarating and hard-won freedom from fear that has overtaken hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.

Meanwhile, as the deadly battle for control of Tahrir Square continues, with at least five dead at the hands of government-organized mobs, a few notes based on conversations with friends on the ground.

* The protests had been peaceful since the black-helmeted riot police were routed earlier this week – “a textbook Gandhian uprising,” as the Al Jazeera English anchor just described it. The young protesters controlling the square were checking people for weapons before allowing them to enter (“I got patted down in the nicest way,” said one female friend, this in a city well-known for the sexual harassment of women.) The violence started with the arrival of pro-Mubarak thugs carrying blades, clubs, razors, firebombs and guns. “A lot of people are going to die, and it’s because Hosni Mubarak, 82 and suffering from pancreatic cancer, does not know when to leave the cocktail party.”

* Many privileged Egyptians have gone from afraid, to angry, to thrilled, to terrified, all in the space of nine days. Now they want comfort.

“I was amazed by the total turnaround in my neighborhood watch group after the Mubarak speech,” when the president said he would not seek reelection, a another friend recalled. “They almost had tears in their eyes, and were happy to cease all their protesting and leave him to organize the smooth transition to democracy for them…Some of the group who only days ago would have shot him on sight were off today to join a pro-Mubarak march.”

* The state is targeting Egypt’s cautious middle, who see themselves as good people who want only to live good lives. The goal has been to portray the protesters as foreign-manipulated thugs who are bringing chaos to Egypt. The first exhibit of government manipulation is the vandalism at the Egyptian Museum.

“They came in from the roof,” an Egyptian antiquities official told me. “They pushed things, they broke things. How could they have got inside? The only people inside were police…The Egyptian people are not the kind of people who are going to loot the museum.”

This official contrasted the vandalism at the Egyptian Museum with thefts at other, poorly guarded museums, and looting from open-air antiquities sites and antiquities warehouses. “Those,” he said, “are plain old tomb robbers. We’ve had them for centuries. The Egyptian Museum was something different.”

(Photo by Flickr user SebMoros.)

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