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Trying for peace in climate of chaos, violence

By Peter Bouckaert, Special to CNN
  • Peter Bouckaert says he saw bodies of men killed as they defied police in Egypt
  • Peaceful protesters earlier attacked by police outside a mosque, says Bouckaert
  • Some say Mubarak fomenting chaos to show need for his police state
  • Bouckaert: People organizing to bring order in street; united to safeguard gains

Editor's note: Peter Bouckaert directs the global emergencies program at Human Rights Watch.

Alexandria, Egypt (CNN) -- When my translator and I arrived at the main morgue in Alexandria on Saturday morning to try and figure out how many people had died the previous day in the violent clashes that engulfed the city, officials held us back. We needed official permission, they said, and couldn't give us any information without that.

As we walked around looking for the hospital director, his colleagues whispered to us that he was hiding, afraid of the consequences of letting a foreigner into the morgue. But the relatives of the dead had had enough. They shouted at the officials, grabbed us by the arms and pushed us inside.

Suddenly we were in the cold room surrounded by corpses. A woman pulled back the bloodstained sheet from her son's body, wailing, "Look at my Mustafa, look at how beautiful he was. My dear Mustafa, show them, let them hear your beautiful voice. Oh my darling, my darling, how you always looked after your mother." Mustafa Shaaban, just 21, we learned, had been shot in the stomach as he came to the assistance of a wounded protester on Friday.

The room was full of corpses, 13 in all, killed, we were told, on the previous day in the clashes. I saw men with massive head wounds from teargas canisters we were told had been fired directly at their heads at close range, men with fatal bullet wounds and bodies with marks of brutal beatings. A room filled with grief.

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There were 21 corpses at another morgue in the city, according to two of my Egyptian colleagues.

The dead and wounded we saw at the hospital were ordinary Egyptians like those I had watched the previous day emerge from a mosque and start marching against the regime. The protesters had made their nonviolent intentions clear, shouting "We are peaceful!" time and time again, and holding their arms in the air. But they were brutally and immediately attacked by the city's riot police.

This was not a battle provoked by the protesters but it was one they ultimately won, suddenly ending -- at least in Alexandria -- Egypt's 30-year existence as a police state. At the morgue we were confronted with the human cost of that victory.

What is happening in Egypt today is historic: The Egyptian people are engaged in a battle to bring down an abusive police state and will not stop until they achieve their dream. Now they know their power and will not likely stop for changes that are simply cosmetic. As one protester told me outside the morgue, "We want to uproot the entire tree, down to the roots, and then plant a new tree."

There is palatable anger here towards the United States and the rest of the West and equal fear in those quarters about what the future will hold for Egypt. The anger comes from legitimate grievances -- teargas fired at them is U.S.-supplied -- and for all too long the Egyptians have suffered under an authoritarian and abusive regime supported by the West. Now is the time for the U.S. and the European Union to make amends and to assist those who are struggling to end decades of repression in Egypt.

The euphoria of Friday's victory over the police has been overtaken by increasing fear about a lack of security in the streets. For ordinary Egyptians, these are scary and unpredictable days. After living in a police state for so long, the disappearance of the omnipresent police from the streets is a shocking development for many.

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Many believe that the embattled President Hosni Mubarak and his interior ministry have a hand in the chaos. Mubarak's mantra to his people was always that he was the guarantor of their safety and the nation's stability.

Over the weekend, unexplained prison breaks and incidents of undercover police caught looting suggested to many that the Mubarak regime was fomenting chaos as a pretext to end the popular uprising.

But out of chaos, hope is already emerging. In Alexandria, Cairo and Suez, communities responded by organizing themselves into "popular committees" arming themselves with sticks and kitchen knives and walking the streets of their neighborhoods all night to guard their homes and shops.

The popular committees I have seen in action are not acting like vigilantes and are carefully organized by street, neighborhood and city. When they catch looters they don't dispense street justice but hand them over to the army.

Like the protesters, the popular committees represent all of Egypt -- the young, the old, the religious and the secular are all working together. My translator burst out laughing when her mother called to say her dad was teaching young people his long-forgotten martial arts moves. "She's worried he's going to break things in the house swinging and kicking like that," she said with a chuckle.

Those behind the protests don't look threatening out on the street. The people are tired from days of protest and nights of standing guard, but they are united behind the single goal to stand together to safeguard that change they have already brought about without any outside support and to continue to fight for a permanent end to the abusive police state of President Mubarak, peacefully.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bouckaert.