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A Truth More Powerful Than an Army

It was just a routine murder.

Last June, police accosted a young man at an Internet café in the city of Alexandria. He had just filmed their drug deal, or he simply refused to show them his ID. Whatever the provocation — accounts vary — they slammed his head against the table, dragged him outside as he screamed, beat him viciously for 20 minutes. That was that. You can pick up the body later.

In a thug society, power is as power does. And in Egypt, power flowed from the top — from, indeed, beyond the top. It flowed from the superpower that had been a cornucopia of military aid, nearly $2 billion a year, to President Hosni Mubarak for the last 30 years. In return, Mubarak had to be a useful friend to that superpower: open his prisons for secret torture operations, acquiesce to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and, of course, keep the oil flowing from Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, his only obligation was to stay in power, and he did so with a simple and basic brutality. Do what we say or we’ll kill you.

This is the game of geopolitics. It’s played by governments, by the enormously powerful. It’s a game of strategies and “interests,” which are seldom spoken of explicitly because they’re raw and generally smell bad. We — the bulk of ordinary humanity, preoccupied with our own lives, doing the best we can — have, or are supposed to have, only a limited role to play in this game.

We’re soldiers and low-level order followers or, in the privileged and relatively secure West, mostly spectators. We get to read with awe about the great decisions of the powerful, who are busy making history while we pay our taxes, agree, disagree, vote, refrain from voting, distract ourselves and shake our heads occasionally with wonder and tepid sympathy as the bombs fall in distant places.

“Ooh, that’s gotta hurt!” a colleague said to me, for instance, on the morning of March 20, 2003, as we gaped at an overhead television set in our office as the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad begin.

Yeah, imagine how that must feel . . .

This is the thing. The power of domination depends on our essential isolation from one another — our cynical separateness, our underdeveloped or perhaps completely decommissioned capacity for empathy. Alone with ourselves, we have no choice but to fear the power of a brutal and strutting sociopath. We have no choice but to learn a lesson with each routine murder committed in the name of order, and be careful, stay hidden.

But something happened in the wake of the murder last June of Khaled Said that has rocked the whole planet and caused the powerful to drop their jaws (John McCain called it a virus). An uninvited player — the ordinary person, you, me, or at least our Egyptian and Tunisian counterpart — has interrupted the game of geopolitics and started changing the rules.

It began, as the world now knows, with a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said.” Let me say that a little louder: WE ARE ALL KHALED SAID. This is not the same as saying, “Ooh, that’s gotta hurt.” This isn’t an observation. It’s a truth more powerful than an army.

Eventually some 400,000 people joined the Facebook page, which included not only a picture of the smiling young man but also a picture of his shattered face after the beating. Suddenly this routine murder lay open before the nation, a wound and shocking symbol of the Mubarak regime. No one should ever be treated this way.

The outrage festered for half a year. Then in December, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide by self-immolation after being humiliated by a police officer. This tragic act not only sparked a people’s revolt in Tunisia, which drove President Ben Ali from power, but also reignited the outrage in neighboring Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, demanding an end to the Mubarak regime and making his American benefactors squirm.

“Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower,” Steven Zunes wrote this week on Huffington Post, “it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority.”

This is the truth we kept forgetting. It’s the foundation of democracy, but it’s far too inconvenient to be taken seriously. Among the myriad interests of the powerful, circumventing or suppressing it is usually near the top. And this truth doesn’t summon itself easily. As Tom Engelhardt recently pointed out, it happened 20 years ago in Eastern Europe and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union; what’s happening today in the Middle East may signal that a similar fate awaits the American empire.

I mourn the death of a young man, and the millions more — damaged, uprooted, murdered — he has come to represent. I don’t know how far the flame will spread in the Middle East, or what will follow. I only know this: I am Khaled Said.

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