Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Miscellaneous Musings – On a Film Not Yet Made

February 15, 2011

On a Film Not Yet Made

At some point in the future, someone will make a film about the eighteen days that have changed Egypt forever. The film will begin by establishing the conditions that existed prior to the start of protests calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down, and it will likely end with the vice president’s stunning announcement on the eighteen day. I imagine the final moments of the film will include numerous close ups of the jubilant faces in the square that day, culminating with a freeze close-up of someone weeping at the promise of a new Egypt. I expect the film to cut then to a family walking in Tahrir Square while reflecting on how much has changed since that day, on how much better life is for Egyptians now. It will be a powerful moment, and I have every hope that such a scene indeed comes to pass. What’s unclear about this cinematic scenario is just how long will pass between the final shot of the 2011 protests and the scene that follows, as well as the hard decisions that will have to have been made for it to seem realistic to an audience. The hardest of these decisions may just be what to do with the Egyptian police force.

Already we’ve seen members of the police force take their first steps in the wrong direction. The Associated Press has reported that just days after Mubarak’s dramatic exit, police officers have paraded down the streets of Cairo demanding better pay and portraying themselves as both victims of violence during the eighteen-day protest and victims of the Mubarak regime. Their argument appears to essentially be that they had no choice but to follow orders. It’s not an argument that is unlikely to gain them sympathy from the protesters or the millions of Egyptians that agreed with their demands.

So what are the options then? One option may be to dismiss the entire force and start over, yet all one has to do is look to Iraq to see the problems that can come as a result of such a decision. In 2003, Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army, a decision that meant that 400,000 Iraqi soldiers were suddenly unemployed. Big mistake. These now angry men, many of whom were well trained in combat and heavily armed, were suddenly left to fend for themselves in a country with a staggeringly high unemployment rate and a growing sense of fear. It’s often said that this single act is what sparked the deadly insurgency that continues to plague Iraq today. Would the same thing occur in Egypt if the present police force were fired en masse? Put another way, where would they all go? The unemployment rate in Egypt is currently estimated to be about 10%, and according to published reports, the Egyptian police force is currently made up of over one million personnel. Nothing good could come of dismissing that many people.

I would like to suggest another path, one that is imminently more difficult – a chance at forgiveness. What I am calling for is an Egyptian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Members of the police force, as well as others that committed crimes under the Mubarak regime, would be encouraged to admit rather painful truths in exchange for the possibility of being forgiven. Some would have to confess that they took part in beatings of unarmed prisoners, and sadly, some of them would have to admit to much more than that. Someone would have to come forward and admit to shooting the unarmed protester whose death was played over and over on news broadcasts. Another would have to admit to driving the police van that mowed down protesters as it sped through a crowded street. This same person would have to explain why he didn’t stop or call for an ambulance. Did he simply not care? Such a commission would likely start with the three hundred or so deaths that occurred during the eighteen-day protest, and then it would have to delve much deeper into the past, perhaps even as far back as the events that led to Mubarak becoming head of state in the first place. Some would be forgiven; some would not be. It would by not means be an easy period.

The 2000 documentary Long Night’s Journey into Day provides a peek into what this period would probably look like. The film includes heart-wrenching scenes in which police officers confess unspeakable crimes to both the commission he is seeking forgiveness from and the families that his actions have permanently scarred. In a few cases, the commission is not convinced that an officer is remorseful enough to be forgiven, perhaps because he has sought to excuse his actions by saying he was following the orders of his superiors. The documentary ends before some of the cases are concluded, leaving viewers without the uplifting resolution we’re so often seeking at the end of a story this painful to watch, let alone live. Perhaps a complete resolution is impossible, but give South Africans credit for trying.

South Africa’s experiment in forgiveness has yet to be replicated. However, if ever there was a time to do so, it is now, and Egypt may be well positioned to undertake a task this monumental. For the most part, the Egyptian protests were peaceful, and protesters did not resort to the kind of violence that long-held anger sometimes evokes. The Dalai Lama was once asked if he felt anger towards those that have abused and persecuted Tibetans. He answered that he felt the opposite. He felt pity for them because of how much the soldier or police officer must have lost by becoming so desensitized to such acts of violence. In other words, the officer must have suffered greatly to now be able to hurt others.

Years ago when I was studying child development, my professor surprised the class by remarking that after a child hits or pushes another child, both children are in need of comforting. The child who was hurt needs to be tended to and made to feel safe again, and the child who did the hurting needs to be comforted as well, for he lost control to such an extent that another child was hurt. It is this child that has learned a terrible lesson: that he is indeed capable of hurting someone if he is not careful. It is this child that needs help learning how to be stay in control, and it is this child that needs to be forgiven. Try telling that to the parent of the child that was hit. Try telling that the parents whose child was killed by a police officer on the streets of Cairo. It’s not easy. The truly important steps never are.

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