CAIRO (Reuters) - The last Arab despot I saw overthrown was Saddam Hussein. That was all very different from the fall of Hosni Mubarak, toppled this week by his own people, not the might of a foreign army.
In 2003, I spent 18 days under fire in Baghdad as waves of cruise missiles vaporised swathes of the city. It was pounded day after day by American B-52s and British Tornados, before U.S. tanks rolled in to a prostrate capital and declared Iraq liberated from a brutal dictator.
Iraq, and the Arab world, was shocked, and awed. But the fall of Saddam, at a cost of thousands of lives -- and a foreboding of so much more blood to come -- failed to ignite the sense of national triumph among Iraqis that has had Egyptians dancing in the streets after 18 days of popular protests.
In Iraq, there was, of course, elation, especially among the oppressed Shi‘ites and Kurds. But there was also fear and anxiety. Saddam was gone but so too were many of their loved ones. And scores of “mini-Saddams” were to emerge in his place.
Liberation had been delivered, by foreign tanks and warplanes, after years of punitive Western sanctions and three weeks of relentless bombardment. Pictures of U.S. marines helping topple a statue of Saddam outside the international media hotel in Baghdad became the iconic images of those events eight years ago. Many Iraqis had little to be jubilant about. They inherited a broken country, a society that was about to fracture, causing tens of thousands more deaths.
In Cairo, the only tanks are Egyptian, and they have not opened fire. Instead, demonstrators painted them with anti-Mubarak slogans and soldiers smiled. Now Mubarak is gone.
It is hard to believe. No one who has lived in Egypt, as I did in the 1990s, could easily imagine him going, other than through illness or, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, through an assassin’s bullet -- and Mubarak had dodged several of those. Arab dictators tend to die with their boots on.
Judging by the sheer inebriation of joy in Cairo’s streets on Friday night, the roads into Tahrir Square drowning in the elation, euphoria and exhilaration at Mubarak’s departure, few Egyptians had ever really imagined they could force him to give way. People too many to count all said it was like a dream.
But the dream was real and Egypt and its people woke up to a new dawn. As the muezzin’s call to prayer reverberated from a thousand mosques across Cairo at dawn, the sounds of Egyptians still cheering at Mubarak’s departure grew louder. Egypt’s capital tells a story of a country that has changed overnight.
Mubarak’s resignation electrified Egypt and the current is being felt across Arab lands and the palaces of their rulers. Egyptians in their millions danced and partied, celebrating the fall of the man who ruled like a pharaoh. They brought children to celebrate the seismic change Egypt has undergone. Women ululated, as though at a wedding. Young men danced. At the heart of the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, packed so tight hardly another soul could fit in, people embraced and wept in joy and disbelief at a day some thought would never come.
Never before had I seen Egyptians so jubilant. In one day they regained a sense of dignity and national pride that had been buried under the degradation of Mubarak’s autocratic rule. Egyptians from all walks of life, old and young, women and men, religious and secular, rich and poor, leftists and Islamists, all across the nation had united in their loathing of him.
As a journalist long used to the sullen quiet of the police states that still make up much of the Middle East, I felt the surging joy and overwhelming emotions of the population around me as a palpable, physical sensation.
Only once before had I witnessed such ecstatic emotions, in 1994 when I accompanied Palestinian President Yasser Arafat -- and Mubarak -- in the convoy that drove Arafat in his first historic journey back to the Gaza Strip after years in exile.
Egyptians had always seemed unlikely revolutionaries. Throughout the years I lived and worked here I came to know them Egyptians as kind, cheerful and generous, but also often docile and resigned to poverty and hardship as “God’s will”.
The ferocity with which Mubarak’s security forces previously dealt with opposition may have had a lot to do with that, and makes the bravery of those who began the protests on Jan. 25 all the more startling.
In 1992, I moved to Cairo after 16 years of civil war in my native Lebanon and time spent also covering the first Gulf war. In Egypt, long the cultural hub of the Arab world, I was looking forward to writing about life not death, peace not war, and about a country in hopeful transition, reforming its way into the modern world. I was excited by the country’s majestic archaeological treasures and reputed intellectuals.
Just one week into my new job, however, the Islamist militant group al-Gama‘a al-Islamiya staged its first attack against foreign tourists, targeting Egypt’s number one currency earner and economic lifeline. The Islamist resurgence became my focus and I set off to the slums of Imbaba, on Cairo’s outskirts, to find out whether it was true that the radical Islamists had set up a sharia law state-within-a-state.
I interviewed their emir or sheikh. Soon after, I had my first “invitation” to Egypt’s Interior Ministry. After I refused to provide information on whom I had met, I soon began seeing men in cars parked outside my apartment building, ostentatiously reading newspapers; just in case I hadn’t noticed, the men from the ministry made sure to tell me that I was being followed.
There ensued several weeks of slander in government newspapers. They depicted me as the Lebanese who had come to Cairo to spread civil war, some sort of Levantine Mata Hari. Mubarak himself indignantly denied that there was any such thing as an Islamist challenge to his Egypt. Yet a month later he sent more than 20,000 troops into Imbaba. In a week of house-to-house fighting, they rounded up scores of suspected Islamists including the sheikh I had interviewed. Days later he was paraded on state television. His face was bruised and swollen. He was hard to recognise.
Throughout the mid-1990s, I travelled to meet Islamists in their strongholds in Cairo and the southern province of Assiut, witnessing attacks on mosques by Mubarak’s men and learning to play cat-and-mouse with the ubiquitous security services: always do interviews in distant towns before checking in to the hotel; if you register first, the police will be on your tail.
I learned, too, how to get through my regular “invitations” to enjoy the hospitality at the Interior Ministry -- keep your answers consistent; don’t lose your temper; and don’t count the hours. For all that, entering their headquarters at La Zoughly, no one could shut out of their mind the well-documented tales of savage torture that was routine for prisoners in the dungeons.
By 1997, Mubarak was claiming victory over the Islamists, though the price had been high. Attending trials of many of the thousands arrested was disturbing. Military tribunals showed scant regard for evidence, turned a blind eye to torture and were, in effect, a conveyor belt to the gallows.
I grabbed interviews with the accused in their courtroom cages. They were fleeting. The judges wasted little time before banging down the gavel and meting out the death sentence.
Heart-rending scenes would ensue. Mothers fainted, fathers sobbed, the condemned would brandish the Koran. Sometimes, it was the judge who looked most frightened. I remember one who read out his verdict and fled, ducking a chair hurled by a mother. “The sons of Islam will haunt you,” she yelled. “Mubarak, you are a tyrant!”
Much of the trial process was a sham. The state occasionally produced indictments against men already hanged. Such was the impunity of state power, no one bothered to cover up the errors.
While some of those convicted had indeed taken up arms, many were condemned only for membership of Islamist parties. And they were far from alone in harbouring deep grievances against Mubarak. By this year, millions of young people have never had a job. Whether Islamist or secular, many millions were frustrated by the arrogance and corruption of the elite.
In the past decade, Egypt seemed sink further into poverty and exploitation, hardly covered by the fantasies of state media which continued to trumpet the achievements of Mubarak’s rule. As in Iraq under Saddam, the security apparatus stretched its tentacles into every aspect of everyday life.
Rights groups said thousands of detainees filled Egypt’s jails. No one knew, or knows still, the exact figure.
Mubarak pushed economic liberalisation policies that drew crony capitalists into the bosom of the administration but left tens of millions of Egyptians below the poverty line. As the middle class was emaciated, the rich opted for gated communities in the desert around Cairo. The poor got poorer in the slum belts.
I watched the capital of the Arab world, a city rich with thousands of years of civilisation and history, going from bad to worse, its buildings crumbling, its diplomatic role in the world diminishing, its creativity stifled and freedoms thwarted.
The revolution that began on Jan. 25 has given Egyptians back their pride and dignity. They have not just thrown out an unpopular ruler. Unarmed, they have faced down the might of a ruthless police state which had never shrunk from detaining anyone, for any reason, for any length of time.
In the process, they have ripped up stereotypes of a nation that for millennia was supposedly ready to bow down before the pharaoh, regardless of the humiliations heaped upon it.
Opposition politician Ayman Nour -- a man who paid the price of prison for daring to challenge Mubarak’s supremacy at the ballot box -- said it was the greatest day in Egypt’s history.
“This nation has been born again,” he said. “These people have been born again, and this is a new Egypt.”
Whereas, Baghdad, subdued and occupied, descended into an orgy of looting and violence among the communities which Saddam had divided in order to rule, Cairo is having a carnival.
In the joy of the moment, each Egyptian seems to have the sense that they personally have taken on Pharaoh, and won.
“I am Egyptian, I have toppled Hosni,” people chanted on streets, drunk on the heady scent of a free nation.
So very unlike Iraq eight years ago and, surely, a better starting point for an uncertain future.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald