The crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square might be getting bigger, but they're just too darned peaceful to hold our attention here on the other side of the world.

Already, big news organizations are scaling back, pulling out correspondents.

Big crowds challenging a tyrannical regime might have been huge headlines last week. But in the news business, repetitive means non-newsworthy, unless the dictator flees, or the city burns, or the protesters somehow kick it up a notch, which is precisely what the world is congratulating them for not doing.

It would appear that Hosni Mubarak and his cohort understand and are counting on that. Their plan has been to do nothing, make enough vague promises to satisfy all these whining Western allies, and wait. There'll be plenty of time to strike back.


An Egyptian protester shields himself during clashes with riot police at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on Jan. 29. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Already, Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian vice-president whom Washington is backing as Egypt's "interim leader," is saying there is no need to undo the emergency laws that have been used to terrorize and repress Egyptians for 30 years.

He further sees no need for Mubarak to step down early, regardless of what the Tahrir Square crowds might want.

Oh, and as he told ABC News, he doesn't think Egypt yet has a "culture of democracy."

Shooting video

Meanwhile, the thugs in the outfit Suleiman once ran, the feared mukhabarat, Egypt's secret police, are almost certainly taking down names.

A regime that can shut down the internet can also analyze all the Twittering and texting and Facebooking that is going on, and identify the natural leaders among the protesters.

There have also been reports that plainclothes agents have been in Tahrir Square, shooting video.

That means that if the world's attention keeps drifting, and if the millions of Egyptians who've had their incomes disrupted by the protests start to push back, then Allah help those protesters. Because nobody else will.

Publicly, Mubarak and Suleiman are promising no reprisals.

If history is any guide, though, the protesters will be jailed and tortured and their lives, or at least the lives of those who survive the regime's revenge, will be ruined.

What's more, Mubarak's capos, or those who take over to keep his regime alive, will carry it all out with equipment and technical expertise provided by the U.S., its biggest Western ally.

'You are talking to journalists'

We all want to root for the people in Tahrir Square. Who can gainsay people rallying and dying for their democratic rights? We should all have a fraction of that courage.

But all the excited commentary last week — that the Arab street's "fear barrier" has been broken, that Arab dictators are terrified and scrambling, and that other dominoes will fall — ignores reality.


Plainclothes policemen hit a protester during a demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 28, while their colleagues in riot gear ignore what's going on. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

First, the ferocity of Arab regimes' enforcers should not be underestimated. Even as Mubarak and Suleiman were making soothing noises about change last week, their secret police were going about torture with unabated enthusiasm.

The New York Times carried a piece by two of its journalists who were arrested and spent a night in a mukhabarat facility.

They described the sounds I once heard during a similarly enforced stay at an Iranian prison 10 years ago, "the sickening sound somewhere between a dull thud and a whack," followed by screams of agony.

"You are talking to journalists," yelled the torturer in the Times piece. "You are talking badly about your country."

Egyptians who have spent time as guests of Mubarak's operatives in the past have reported much worse: women being raped in front of their husbands, detainees being sliced with razors and, of course, reliable old electric shock.

I once saw three burly swine punishing a beggar woman outside the big mosque adjacent to the famous Khan Khalili bazaar. Two of them were holding her arms, as the third kicked her in the face and stomach.

When I shot some pictures, they identified themselves as police, confiscated my film and dragged her off by the hair, evidently wanting a bit of privacy to finish their work.

Too many Khaleds

One of the heroes of today's protesters is Khaled Mohamed Said, a 28-year-old who dared to disseminate video of corrupt police divvying up confiscated drugs and cash.

Two of Cairo's finest hunted him down, smashed in his skull, then told his family he was a druggie who died of an overdose.

But the family was smart enough to bribe a guard at the morgue to photograph Khaled's hideously mutilated body and the picture went viral.

Thousands of other Khaleds, no doubt, have simply disappeared into obscurity. In a regime that has been supported and bankrolled by Western powers, including Washington and, yes, Canada.

All that said, the Egyptians are rather moderate in the wider context of the Arab world.  

In Syria last week, online activists had called for a "Day of Rage" in Damascus on Friday.

No one showed up. Big surprise.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia as "pollution and microbes," and patiently explained that, in Syrian culture, the concept of human rights has a different meaning.  

Different meaning, indeed. Syria is a far darker place than Egypt. Its security organs are merciless.

In 1982, the ruling Baathists showed the Arab world how Damascus deals with challenges to the entrenched order: When Islamists revolted in the city of Hama, Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad dispatched the army.

By the time he was finished, between 20,000 and 50,000 men, women and children had been killed.

Given that, imagine being the first one to show up for a Facebook-organized copycat protest in Damascus? Or Libya?

This is not to say these regimes don't recognize a potential problem when they see it. Suddenly they're all promising change.

Al-Assad has promised to lead reforms in Syria. King Abdullah of Jordan has fired his government and raised the army's pay. Ali Abdullah Saleh has not just promised not to run again two years from now, he's assuring Yemenis that he won't install his son, Ahmed.


It is probably worth remembering Hosni Mubarak originally promised, when he assumed power in 1981, not to exceed two six-year terms. Other Arab leaders have made equally worthless gestures.

They also know that the Twittering and blogging protesters in Tahrir Square hardly represent the broader Arab street, which can cherish its tribalism and where the resistance to societal change approaches calcification.

Democracy means protection of minority rights, free speech, a fearless, independent judiciary, and rule of law — concepts with which Arab society is largely unfamiliar, and in which the Arab League's 19 dictators have shown themselves to be utterly uninterested.