Two blocks from my Arabic tutor’s apartment in downtown Cairo stands a building the size of a city block. Its ominous black walls make little secret of the sinister work conducted by its inhabitants. In a city jammed with cars, my taxi ran smoothly past it. Policemen yelled at us lest we take pictures or blow up.
This building housed the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior, an Orwellian institution that commanded 850,000 police, 450,000 paramilitary “Central Security Forces” troops and 400,000 secret police. All were employed in the nasty business of perpetuating President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In Egypt, there was one security officer for every 37 citizens (America comes in at a little more than 1:500). Today, that building is no longer the keystone of an authoritarian arch. It is now little more than a stone. As of writing, the falling government is barely holding back the crowds by using live ammunition.
This past week has shown us once more that the most pivotal events — the actions, decisions, and chance combinations that define history — often arrive without warning.
The New York Times has written that “Egyptians again were taking control of their destiny.” But the events we are witnessing might be even more novel than that. The last two “popular” shifts in power — which brought in Nasser in 1952, and empowered Ahmed Urabi in 1882 — were top-down agitations from within the military. Before that, the history of Egypt is one of strongmen, elites and foreign invaders.
So watch the news. A new history is unfolding.
But we must be careful not to get carried away in our ebullience.
There is an e-mail “panlist” for expatriates living in Cairo called “Cairo Scholars.” Up until last Thursday the subject lines read “BEAUTIFUL APARTMENT (1500 LE) DOWNTOWN” and “Offer: High Quality Arabic language courses.” Now it is filled with “facebook working proxy,” “NGOs supporting detainees?” and “when will communication work again?” The last real-estate posting — on Friday by a young couple looking for an eight-month lease on an apartment starting in two weeks — got a witty reply-all retort: “I hear there is a lot of space in the National Democratic Party headquarters” and then “Nice views! I hear this place is hot, hot hot!”
The political right insists that Obama should have more strongly voiced his support for democracy in Egypt. But the issue is not so clear-cut. A movement associated with the United States might not have commanded popular traction. A regime wary of American interference may have been too paranoid to topple.
Most importantly, there are aspects of Mubarak’s regime that must be preserved. Indeed, under the shadow of authoritarianism, many thrived. NGOs and charities such as the Children’s Cancer Hospital accomplished extraordinary feats of humanitarianism. Relaxed press laws allowed for the growth and flourishing of semi-independent newspapers and TV channels. Economic reforms over the last decade brought sustained growth of four to seven percent a year. Life expectancy rose from 52 in 1960 to 72 in 2010. The number of passenger cars has doubled since 2000. Plans were even underway to restore and rebuild Cairo’s crumbling downtown.
But most of all, Mubarak maintained peace. In the 30 years before Mubarak, Egypt went to war beyond its borders three times. Since 1981, Egypt has been engaged in no external conflict other than the Gulf War — a remarkable feat for the tenth largest military in the world, and the second largest in the Middle East, a region that defines volatile.
All of this hangs by a very thin thread over a tumultuous future, one fraught with chronic political instability in Lebanon, bellicose repression in Iran, and suffocating theocracy in Saudi Arabia — not to mention the car bombs and rockets of Iraq and the Gaza Strip.
It is satisfying to watch those responsible for the brutal killing of Khalid Saeed — a citizen tortured to death by police last June — cower before protesters. And it is thrilling to watch an unjust and thuggish edifice shatter. But we would be remiss to overlook the growth and stability that edifice had supported.
We should not get caught up in the demands for Mubarak’s retirement. Instead, we should focus on the protestors’ grievances: political liberties, a humane government, less corruption and more economic opportunities.
Ideally, a transitional government will restore order, shepherd Egypt to a free and fair presidential election, and usher in an unprecedented era of representative politics with substantial economic and humanitarian dividends. Realistically, they could do much worse.
So let us hope that policy makers, leaders and those brave men and women in the streets of Cairo take a breath and stay focused — on building, not destroying — as the hard work begins.
Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.