The chaotic images broadcast from Cairo and Alexandria aren’t just shocking, they are unprecedented, if not surreal.
Egypt has virtually no history of public demonstrations, of workers’ strikes, of protest marches, of disobedience - civil or otherwise - no tradition of open debate. Outcry isn’t accepted; it is crushed. Orthodoxy and fear tiptoe around each other and scramble to safety the moment anyone wearing a uniform knocks at the door or flashes a torch.
There have been demonstrations and strikes before, but Egypt is a totalitarian regime: one leader, one ideology, one party. It is also home to only one religion.
The rainbow coalition is a foreign concept. So are press freedoms and tolerated difference. Sanctioned hate speech and paranoia are the norm. A demonstration by women defending their own rights a few years ago ended in assault. The violent protests against the elimination of food subsidies during the presidency of Anwar Sadat were brutally quashed. And under Gamal Abdel Nasser, I remember that the transit workers’ strike was fiercely suppressed.
The only massive rally officially allowed and broadcast from Egypt - a sight the likes of which no one in the West had witnessed before - was the funeral procession attended by five million people for president Nasser in 1970 followed by a larger cortege five years later when Egypt’s diva, Om Kalthoum, died.
In both cases, massive throngs filled the streets and squares to capacity, billowing their way toward the bier, almost toppling the casket, swayed by a passion so intense and overwhelming that the mob became like a giant organism spurred by one will, one voice, one grief. Even the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square or the spectacle of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or of chanting youth in Teheran two years ago were nothing compared with the shrieking lament as the remains of Egypt’s beloved were taken to their resting place.
Egypt isn’t home to diversity or pluralism. Everyone, or so it always seems in police states, thinks more or less the same, feels the same, loves and worships the same. Egyptians may be stirred by extreme passions but they are equally tempered by a gentleness of manner that is so pervasive it could easily be mistaken it for passivity. The tinderbox, of course, lies somewhere between rage and resignation.
Neither can pave the way to the future, but both can be deadly.
Where Egypt is headed is still unclear. More worrisome yet is who will step into the breach if President Hosni Mubarak goes. Will it be the powerful Islamist oligarchy, which, so far, has stood on the sidelines and watched the unaffiliated younger generation of Egypt vent its rage against a police state that has historically been so brutal to the Muslim Brotherhood?
Or will it be someone like Mohamed ElBaradei, who could steer Egypt toward real democracy and desperately needed change, thus helping Egypt become the modern state it so wants to be?
Or will it be someone like Nasser, who, rising from the military ranks and armed with his own charisma, will, as so many leaders have done in the past century, feed the masses on national pride?
Will he invoke the usual villains, and in two moves as brilliant as they are cunning, undo every vestige of Western liberalism in order to maintain good relations with the liberal West, while fanning religious fervor to contain the threat of religious extremism? Will he allow the press to stoke the embers of anti-Americanism to screen his reliance on America?
Right now, Egyptians are angry and defiant. Few seem to know what they want exactly, but they all know what they don’t want: the same leader, the same party, the same machine. They don’t want more of the same. They want new. This is a first. Euphoria and apprehension run wild in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, as they do in many places in the West, which loves nothing better than to see the toppling of yet another dictatorial regime, yet it worries what could come next.
The army has been welcomed by the very crowds it was meant to control while the police, though violent and determined to protect government buildings, has almost totally disappeared from most parts of Cairo. This suggests either that the authorities have lost their nerve after the Cabinet resignations or that a massive, Iran-style repression is about to occur.
A vacuum is spreading in the urban areas, and, while shops allegedly have begun to reopen, gangs, violent looters and vigilantism have made their presence felt - sobering reminders of the looting that took place immediately after Saddam Hussein’s police state fell apart in Iraq. One recent report from Cairo suggests that jails have been opened and prisoners set loose upon the city.
There is no halting the momentum now, just as there was no stopping the communist house of cards from crumbling in Eastern Europe 20 years ago.
Everyone in the world - leaders and television viewers alike - knows that a new wind is coming from the Middle East.
(Andre Aciman is a professor of comparative literature at CUNY Graduate Centre and the author of ‘Out of Egypt.’ The opinions expressed are his own.)