Amid the reports of violence, tear gas, and buildings aflame in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt on Friday, came accounts of protesters and security forces shaking hands and hugging each other. At one point, protesters hoisted police on their shoulders. One photo by the Associated Press showed an activist planting a big smooch on the helmet of a policeman in riot gear. The policeman grinned.
The New York Times reports that "in both Cairo and Alexandria, some army patrols were greeted with applause and waves from the crowds." It goes on to describe a scene in Alexandria, where one street battle ended with "protesters and police shaking hands and sharing water bottles on the same street corner where minutes before they were exchanging hails of stones and tear-gas canisters were arcing through the sky. Thousands stood on the six-lane coastal road then sank to their knees and prayed."
These accounts remind me of my time as a foreign correspondent for the Monitor, covering the fall of communist East Germany. Specifically, today reminds me of the consequential evening of Oct. 9, 1989, when East German protesters in Leipzig won over armed-to-the-hilt security forces with cries of "We are the people!" By "we," they meant the security forces and the citizenry. Everyone.
Leipzigers had been marching in Monday-night demonstrations, peacefully protesting their communist government. But tensions were building. A "Tiananmen Square" situation was predicted for the Oct. 9 demo. Reports were circulating that extra hospital beds and plasma had been sent to Leipzig to prepare for an expected bloodbath. Police, Army, secret police, and workers' militias were deployed.
But citizen leaders and citizens themselves talked directly with security forces and urged them not to resort to violence. The evening march, which started out crackling with fear, ended harmoniously. No shots were fired.
And that was the beginning of the end of the communist East German regime. Because once the people with the guns stopped supporting the regime and sided with the citizenry, the regime became a paper tiger.
If Egyptians co-opt the armed forces, it's all over for Hosni Mubarak.