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Reconciliation's role after revolutions

Egypt's state security service has been disbanded, and there will be prosecutions for the crimes of the past, but there must be room for reconciliation as well.

On the edge of Tahrir Square, the Egyptian military has taken over a wing of the national museum. Protesters who have been detained there say that they had been beaten by soldiers, shaking confidence in the armed forces who have been seen as the only guarantor of the country's stability.

The scene is all-too familiar from the abuses of the Mubarak regime. Protesters who have taken over state security offices have discovered, to no one's surprise, a trove of evidence detailing systematic torture and detention without cause.

How can past crimes be held to account? It is a question not just for the "new" Egypt, but for Tunisia and potentially other regimes as well. Dictators may have fallen, but the state apparatus is still in the hands of the old guard - generals, politicians and bureaucrats who were part of the previous regimes.

But in both Egypt and Tunisia, the most visible figures of the old regimes - the prime ministers designated by the departing presidents - have been sacked. And on Tuesday, Egypt's interior ministry shut down the state security service, the feared agency that had wielded all of those instruments of torture. Tunisia's secret police were disbanded earlier in the month. It remains to be seen what will happen to these enforcers of yesterday's police states, not to mention the ordinary police who haven't returned to their posts in some cases.

Certainly there will be criminal actions. The bodies cannot remain buried forever; just look at Argentina, where prosecutions are still being pursued almost 30 years after the dirty war. Victims and their families will demand, and deserve, answers. Already the assets of the Mubarak and Ben Ali clans, not to mention the Qaddafis, are under investigation.

How far purges will extend could shape these fledgling democracies. There are lessons from the catastrophic de-Baathification policy in Iraq, where even low-level bureaucrats were forced out not because they were guilty of crimes but because of party membership. That, along with the disbanding of the Iraqi army, was a recipe for conflict.

There must be room for reconciliation as well. As one example, Egypt's military, a pillar of the old regime, has been the most powerful institution since the revolution, and should be a supporter of a new government. The sooner soldiers stop beating protesters, the easier that transition will be.

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