They can’t help themselves. Really, they can’t. Like children, the most monstrous of secret police outfits evidently come to believe themselves immortal. They lose all ability to imagine that they might ever go down and so keep records to the very moment of their collapse. Those records, so copious, damning, and unbearably detailed (which doesn’t make them accurate), provide something like a composite snapshot of the rotting innards of oppressive and brutal regimes -- of their torture practices and their informers, of every citizen who knowingly or unknowingly crossed some line and many who didn’t, and of the corrupt doings of the leaders who gave the secret police free rein.
And so it was bound to happen, as it did in East Germany and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc after 1989, that the innards of the hated Egyptian state security agency Amn al Dawla (“Mubarak’s Gestapo,” as it’s now being called) would finally see the light of day. The Tahrir Square demonstrators demanded that it be disbanded. Now, its torture chambers have been photographed and you can take a tour of the suite of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly (at present under arrest) in its Cairo headquarters on YouTube. Some activists have had the startling experience of reading their own files; others were able to revisit the cells where they had once been tortured.
All this happened because thousands of protestors recently stormed that notorious headquarters and other of the agency’s offices, liberating secret files by the bushel-load, thousands upon thousands of them, even though security officials tried to destroy them. After decades of such record-keeping, there were undoubtedly simply too many to destroy. (At the moment, 67 state security figures suspected of being involved in the destruction of those files are being detained for investigation.)
Really, it's a glorious moment and a strange one as well. After all, in 2006 when Wikileaks first began leaking documents, it seemed a novel, even one-of-a-kind organization. That turned out to be a misapprehension. It was merely a pioneer in a new age of anti-state-secrecy sunshine activism. We are now, it seems, plunged into a WikiLeaks world. While the Egyptian army pleads for the return of the documents, even as it threatens prosecution, and demands that they not be made public, they are already appearing (along with possible fakes) on their own Facebook pages, being tweeted about and discussed, written about, shown on television, and reproduced in newspapers as if all of Egypt were a giant WikiLeaks machine.
Right now, for such a world of energizing if anarchic openness, only one person is paying the price: a 23-year-old being kept in the strictest, most punitive version of isolation, sometimes even being denied clothes, under abusive conditions in a cell not in Mubarak’s Egypt, but on a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. This is, of course, Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of turning hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents over to WikiLeaks. His mistreatment is now common knowledge. About it, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had this to say late last week at MIT: “I spent 26 years in the Air Force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid, and I don't know why the DoD [Department of Defense] is doing it.” In response to a question undoubtedly provoked by Crowley's comments, Manning’s commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, acknowledged the situation at his Friday press conference and even though he dismissed it, he is now certainly accountable for it. (For his blunt honesty, Crowley was promptly forced to resign.)
In the meantime, the Egyptian demonstrators have picked up where Manning left off and, in terms of shining a light into some very dark corners, are leading the way. As that peripatetic and irrepressible roving correspondent for Asia Times Pepe Escobar points out in his latest post at TomDispatch, “Is Egypt the Future IndoTurkezil?” this may not, in the end, be the only way in which Egyptians break new ground in a very old world.