For H.A. Hellyer’s full coverage for RD from Cairo, click here.
He was the driver of one of many cars we stopped that night coming into our neighborhood. Foolishly, I did not take his national identification card and his car registration — I just asked him to open the trunk of his car. He opened it with pleasure, and was about to drive off, when Muhammad, one of my neighbors, recognized him.
“Oh, hello. Wait a minute — aren’t you the police officer we saw here yesterday?”
Bashfully, he replied, “Um, yes.”
Muhammad responded, with all the righteousness evident in his voice, “So, no work for you today?”
None of us wanted to see a cop. None of us wanted to see one ever again. A few days ago, it was the police who were both the mainstay of our security, and the annoying bane of our lives. But tonight, the police were not a mix of good and bad. Tonight, the police were the ones who had obeyed an order to come off the streets, and deserted their posts. It was the police who had left us to the mercy of the escaped convicts and looters, who were out in their thousands across Egypt.
One has to remember: the very basis of the social contract in this region is that the state provides security. It’s what formed the basis of Islamic governance for centuries — from the very first Muslim community in Madinah in the 7th century, up until now, the basis of governance was the ability to provide security from internal and external forces of aggression. Beyond that, in fact, the state was not meant to do very much. Historically, and through to the past hundred years or so, the state was a very minimal presence in Muslim societies. What was far more powerful was civil society — it was civil society, through foundations and trusts, that lit the streets of Andalus — it was civil society that provided the schools and the mosques — it was civil society that gave free clean water. Then, colonization — which dealt a crippling blow to the traditional basis of society inthis region — and then following it, the independence movements, which learnt well the awful lessons of statecraft from the colonial regimes.
To the point where in the 21st century, if you have any problem, you expect the state to sort it out for you. And in exchange, you tolerate pretty much anything and everything — as long as you have security.
No more. That’s why Muhammad spoke to the cop like that. The curtain of fear has been lifted. As they were saying on the protests: Egyptians have had their taste of freedom, and they won’t lose that taste easily.
“Umm… well, I was working a bit yesterday?”
Muhammad decided to let him off. “OK. You can go on.”
As the cop was stopped at the roadblock, someone took a picture of him. The cop immediately reacted, forgetting which time he was living in.
“Why is he taking pictures of me?!”
Muhammad just shrugged and said, “Ask him.”
And then, I think, the cop remembered. This was 2011. The people were no longer afraid of him and the likes of him. And he drove off, like a bat out of hell.