Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Coup

Just ahead of dawn the young sentry in the lobby of the interior ministry, bored and sleepy after yet another overnight shift alone, heard tapping on the plate glass door as he made his rounds of the long empty corridors. Startled, he adjusted the strap of the rifle that was slung over his shoulder, straightened his cap, and made sure his shirt was tucked in all the way around. Visitors were rare on his watch; most likely it was an inspector, and it wouldn't pay to be looking unkempt. He strode quickly to the main entrance and peered out through the glass at the plaza that surrounded the ministry, lit up by the spotlights along the building's exterior.

When he reached the door and saw who was there he stood panicked and puzzled for a moment. It wasn't an inspector at all but three girls, identically dressed in the uniform of the national university that occupied a bluff a half-mile away along the river. As soon as they saw him they began calling to him urgently. One, the tallest of the three, held aloft a large manilla envelope that appeared to have some kind of official stamp on it; the flap was open and several sheets of paper were protruding a bit, though he couldn't tell what kind of documents they might be. The other two girls, after a brief pause when they first caught sight of the sentry, began banging on the glass again, pleading with him to unlock the door.

He stared at them, then shook his head. Obviously it was against regulations to open the door until the ministry officials began to arrive for their morning office hours and he was relieved by the day shift. He nervously felt for his radio, but decided it wouldn't be wise to disturb the chief of the security detail, no doubt still asleep in bed with his mistress, for a trivial matter he could handle himself. Hadn't he once received a dressing down for calling an alarm, in the middle of the night, because he had heard what turned out to be windblown acorns bouncing against the side of the ministry? He shook his head at the girls again, emphatically this time, and gave them a dismissive wave of the hand to make them go away.

But they didn't go away. Instead, the one holding the manilla envelope, who seemed to be their leader, drew out some papers and held them up. She seemed very indignant. Perhaps she was the daughter of some official, dispatched to deliver urgent correspondence to the ministry, though the more he thought it over the more unlikely that possibility seemed. He shook his head one more time, looking as severe as he could, hoping the girls would understand that the matter was now settled and that further entreaties would be a waste of time, but he didn't resume his rounds.

The girls turned away from him, conferring by themselves, then the tall one pulled out a cell phone and punched a number. She gestured at the door and shook her head while she spoke into the phone; she leafed through the papers, then slapped them against her thigh in evident exasperation. In the meanwhile the other two girls had returned their attention to the door. They banged on the glass and beckoned to him; he couldn't make out what they were saying but he distinctly heard the word “idiot.”

The sentry tried to pretend he was ignoring them, but as this clearly wasn't having the desired effect he thought it over, reached for his radio again, then changed his mind. Instead he strode firmly to the door and demanded their business in a firm voice. The girl on the cell phone broke off the call, and all three began chattering at him at once, more frantically than before. They held up a sheet of paper; it looked official, but he couldn't catch its import from where he stood. Finally he reached to his belt for the key and inserted it in the door.

The girls rushed in all at once. One of them immediately darted to the bottom of the stairs. He yelled after her, started to follow, until he noticed that somehow, from out of nowhere, another cluster of students had appeared and were shoving their way through the half-open door. This group included some male students, as well as a couple of burlier, older men. Before he could react one of them had seized the rifle that still lay slung on his shoulder. He resisted but they pulled it away and subdued him, then pushed him aside.

Another cell phone snapped open, and within seconds a crowd was forming, a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty people, students mostly but not all, running individually or in twos and threes across the plaza between the oak trees, scattering or crushing the newly fallen acorns as they came. Swiftly, largely in silence, they made their way inside and swept up the stairs to the offices above.

Upstairs the corridors were mostly deserted, but the crowd barged into an office where a dozen startled men and women sat at desks, headphones on, cigarettes between their fingers. One of them drew a revolver and waved it around; the intruders swarmed past him and out of the room, hurrying down the hall towards the private elevator that led to the minister's office. The man with the pistol put it away and reached for the telephone. Then he noticed that his fellow-workers had all abandoned their posts and disappeared.

The door to the minster's office was locked. While the crowd debated how to proceed a guard rushed in and fired a pistol shot into the ceiling. At the sound the throng drew back, at first, but the force of new arrivals propelled them forward again, trapping the guard against the door for an uncomfortable moment, until word was passed back and the shoving stopped. A harried-looking functionary, bloodshot and tieless in a glum disheveled suit, foced his way through, unopposed. After a moment's parley he dismissed the guard and produced a key, then stood aside as the crowd burst into the inner sanctum of the ministry.

At the headquarters of the national broadcasting service, a little after dawn, the staff suddenly rose, seemingly as one, and stormed into the studio just as the morning newscast was beginning. The perplexed announcer froze, looked up at the crowd gathered around him, then took off his earpiece and yielded the microphone to one of his subordinates. The camera crew continued filming without a pause. A producer darted in from the control room, infuriated, yelling and threatening, but was soon subdued by an offer of immediate defenestration.

As the city woke up and the news began to spread the downtown districts filled with pedestrians, most of them hustling towards the presidential palace and the ministries that surrounded it. Traffic began to back up, as a tide of cars and trucks, all heading in the same direction, inundated the main avenues, tying up streets for hundreds of square blocks. By the time the army arrived the entire area was gridlocked. The lead tank tried to ram its way through, pushing three or four cars aside and riding over the top of another, but the situation was quickly understood to be hopeless, especially after the military vehicles became trapped, in their turn, by another wave of incoming traffic behind them. The soldiers abandoned their stalled vehicles and stood around in groups, shouting into radios and cell phones, until the crowds began to swell around them and they broke up, retreating on foot to their barracks or just heading home.

The president had slept in, as usual, and was shaving when he heard the commotion outside. He set his razor down, hastily grabbed a towel, and strode to the window in his sleeveless undershirt and shorts. The sight of the crowed stunned him; just then the phone rang. It was the minister of defense, calling from his home in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Had he heard the news? What were his orders? The president said he would call right back, then pulled on a pair of pants and rushed into the hallway, looking for his chief of staff. The offices around him were bustling like a hive; papers were being shredded, desks emptied out. His secretary breezed by him, securing her purse on her shoulder as she hurried off, giving him just a quick glance and a weak smile before she darted towards the elevator.

He went over to a window, hid himself behind a curtain, and peeked outside. The plaza was jammed with thousands of people; they seemed to be in the mood for celebration. He looked in vain for any sign of the police, or his personal bodyguard, but except for one police cruiser parked on the far edge of the crowd, its lights flashing, they were nowhere to be seen. He retreated into his private chambers, pulled down a briefcase and a plastic shopping bag, and began to gather his personal effects. When he left, walking in a daze down the hall towards the elevator as the transitional committee assembled in his office, no one even noticed him.

The above was first written in 2007. I am reposting it and dedicating it to all those in Egypt, Belarus, and elsewhere for whom it must, for now, remain only a fantasy.

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