Today's crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it's surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word "thug" to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I'm skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak's Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak's regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.
If it's hard to imagine that the "thugs" are motivated by ideological conviction -- Mubarak had no basis on which to indoctrinate a Basij or Revolutionary Guard -- it's easy to imagine they're acting out of self-interest and fear. The Egyptian military seems to have a place reserved for itself in whatever new order emerges. But who can say the same for the country's security services? When Egypt's emergency laws are eventually rescinded, who will have use for people practiced in torturing their fellow citizens? The people wielding machetes in Tahrir Square probably have a hazy vision of a future Egypt in search of scapegoats. And they know that there won't be a plane waiting to bring them out of the country, like there will be for Mubarak.