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EGYPT: The police are back, but where are the inmates?

February 19, 2011 | 10:56 am

Celebrate pic 
Egyptians are smiling again. Theirs is a deep pride in the revolution, along with a joyous freedom to say whatever bad thing they want about the government. The biggest crowd yet filled Tahrir Square and spilled across bridges and neighborhoods in Cairo on Friday, celebrating victory and mourning 365 martyrs.

The Army tanks are fewer but still anchor the city, big brothers keeping the people safe. The Army Council text messages me daily. It seems it wants everyone to quit protesting and get back to work for the good of the nation. Google executive Wael Ghonim joined in, telling the strikers that now is not the time to ask for $100 instead of $70.   

The police are back, in fresh uniforms and trimmed moustaches, after a brief forced vacation following the Day of Anger. They too have asked for better wages, and forgiveness.

Most disturbing are the rumors, which swirl like dust storms: Thugs are throwing empty baby carriages onto roadways, and then robbing and killing drivers who stop. Impossible, say some prone to dark humor, because drivers here stop for no one. Sexual harassment is up, report some sources, while others say it has stopped. Hosni Mubarak, at his home in Sharm el Sheikh, lies in a coma; a day later, the guards report he is breakfasting on the beach.

Many are curious about the thousands of escaped prison inmates. The word on the street had them responsible for the mayhem and looting that led to vigilante groups forming across the country. It didn’t seem likely though, when a hot shower and home-cooked meal were beckoning after long years in a cell.

Indeed, more than a few political prisoners are back in their home countries. Hamas commander Ayman Nofal returned to central Gaza after serving three years in the Abu Zabaal prison, northeast of Cairo. Nofal, arrested in 2008 for planning terror attacks in Egypt, made his way home through a tunnel in Rafah. And, according to Agence France-Presse, Mohammed Yusuf Mansour -- alias Sami Shehab -- and other members of a Hezbollah cell escaped from an Egyptian prison along with members of the Palestinian group Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and thousands of others during the anti-government protests.

Videos uploaded to YouTube showed men escaping over high prison walls, others being told to leave and still others deciding to stay, so as not to risk capture and further sentencing. Dozens were reported to have died at Abu Zabaal, according to Human Rights Watch.

Masked commandos no longer guard the villas in Maadi, my neighborhood south of Cairo. The chains and locks bought in panic hang limp near open gates. Security guards have removed the trees, ladders and sundry barricades blocking the streets. But campfires still burn through the night, their sweet smoke marking change, freedom, a new Egypt. And, say the gallibayeed guards on my corner, a chance to roast potatoes. They prefer the orange ones.   

-- Clare Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Celebration in Tahrir Square. Credit: Reuters