Power of brutality and its limits

By Robert Fisk

Lessons from an extraordinary uprising - for protesters and police alike.

After three weeks 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 Sana'a, Bahrain and Algiers as Tunisian and Egyptian dictators tried vainly to employ against their own pro-democracy protesters.

Just as the non-violent millions in Cairo learnt from Al-Jazeera and from their opposite numbers in Tunis so the state security thugs in Egypt have used precisely the same brutality against the crowds as their colleagues in Tunis.

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 copycat mode.

Having had the pleasure of standing next to these state security warriors in the streets of Cairo, I can attest to 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 strike the protesters with sticks, police coshes and crowbars.

Then the criminals retreated to police lines while the cops doused demonstrators with thousands of tear-gas canisters (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 Sana'a's pro-democracy demonstrators then parting ranks to allow plain-clothes thugs to attack the protesters 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 speechlessly 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 kapos 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 in December, the head of Tunisian state security dropped by for a fraternal visit. Just as Algerians visited Syria back in 1994 to find out how Hafez al-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 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 Ben Ali and Mubarak. That's not the only strange parallel between the overthrow of these two titans. Mubarak really thought the people would suffer another five months of his rule. Ben Ali much the same. It proves the dictators of the Middle East are infinitely more stupid, more vicious, more vain, more arrogant, more ridiculous than even their own people realised.

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