Khaled Diab Correspondent
It was one of those paradoxes of revolution. Hosni Mubarak’s most hotly anticipated speech was to prove to be his last. He was never much of an orator, and whenever a Baba Mubarak speech was on TV, Egyptians tended to switch off. Even when the former dictator had a captive audience, they too would switch off — behind glazed eyes or patient, polite nods. But on February 10, 2011, millions of Egyptians — on Tahrir Square, in public spaces across the country and abroad — waited with bated breath to hear whether their self-appointed leader would fall on his proverbial sword.
When he finally appeared, Mubarak defied the military’s hints and disappointed the fevered speculations. Claiming that he “never sought power or fake popularity”, Mubarak insisted that it was his duty to “take Egypt and its people to a safe harbour”. Sharing the disappointment of the jeering crowds on Tahrir, I penned a futile open letter in which I accused Mubarak of possessing the “extraordinary knack for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness”. The next day, February 11, 2011, the once unimaginable, even unthinkable, happened. Reflecting the mundanity of many historic moments, the hastily appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, sounding like a bored civil servant, announced Mubarak’s resignation in a short, lacklustre announcement.
In his final speech, Mubarak repeated the chestnut he had been parroting for years, that the choice for Egypt was between the “chaos” of Islamism and the “stability” he supposedly safeguarded. Egyptians partied on the streets as though Egypt had not only qualified for, but won the World Cup. And in a way it had. Against all the odds, Egyptians from all walks of life, led by their youth, had toppled the despot — whom most feared would leave office in a coffin and anoint his son to succeed him — and brought his repressive police state to its knees. Although it was the evening twilight, it was as if a blinding new dawn had just broken. Even though I was far away in Europe, those mesmerising 18 days were the proudest moments of my life as an Egyptian, despite my aversion to nationalism and my misgivings about how, after making Mubarak walk the plank, the army had taken over the reins of power directly. I felt a burning pride for those millions of courageous, everyday heroes, those masses relegated to the footnotes of history, and how they had smashed their way through the margins, armed only with their willpower, to write — for better or for worse — a new chapter in Egypt’s history. “History will judge me and others for our merits and faults,” Mubarak insisted defiantly in his final speech.
And how should history judge him? During the uprising, Mubarak repeated the chestnut he had been parroting for years, that the choice for Egypt was between the “chaos” of Islamism and the “stability” he supposedly safeguarded. At his trial, he returned to the theme when he blamed Egypt’s subsequent turmoil on “merchants of religion and their local and foreign allies”.
And for a surprising number of people, the mayhem and turbulence of the past five years vindicate Mubarak. A recent example of this was when the Egyptian actress May Ezzedine, during an interview about her private life and career, suddenly decided to thank the former president for “the security I felt during your rule”. This sentiment is not new. Right from the start of the revolution, previously quiet Mubarak supporters suddenly emerged from obscurity to apologise to the president, hold counter-protests, beat up protesters, and even hack revolutionary sites.
Known as “feloul”, the Arabic for “remnants”, many were part of or closely connected to the former regime. Others were simply those who feared the abyss and preferred the devil they knew. So would Egypt have been better off with Mubarak? I doubt it very much. What the former president’s supporters overlook is that Mubarak planted and nurtured the storm that Egypt is harvesting now.
His three decades of one-man rule continued the stifling military dictatorship under which Egypt has lived since 1952. The Free Officers’ promise to steer Egypt towards democracy after a three-year transitional period was left broken and unfulfilled for more than six decades, despite the deep belief in civilian and parliamentary rule entertained by Egypt’s first figurehead president Muhammad Naguib. Unlike efficient one-party states such as China, Mubarak’s Egypt had no clear rules for succession and unlike his two predecessors, he even refused to appoint a vice-president, making the question of succession, even from dictatorship to dictatorship, let alone democracy, a murky one, fraught with uncertainty.
So regardless of whether or not millions had taken to the streets, Egypt was hurtling towards a brick wall come election time in late 2011 and possibly off a cliff if Mubarak were to die in office.
Corruption and state incompetence, a problem under every president, became an incurable plague during Mubarak’s years. Bringing democracy to Egypt is an easier challenge, in my view, than correcting the culture of bribery, mismanagement and incompetence dogging most sectors. And the neo-liberal “reforms” introduced by the international financial institutions and Egypt’s politicised crony capitalists has stripped down and sold off the state and Egypt’s resources at bargain basement prices, and privatised just about everything, including the banks of the Nile. While the 1 percent thrived, education, health and employment regressed to levels in which youth without the backing of well-off families found themselves under-educated, prospectless and repressed. It was highly likely that this crumbling state, like a derelict, badly constructed house, would collapse without the big, bad wolf of the “unwashed masses” blowing it down. The 2011 revolution has, in many ways, helped to make the most of Egypt’s sorry state. It has given Egyptians the belief that they can change their country’s unpleasant reality and it has put Egypt’s leadership on notice that, no matter what they throw at the population, if they do not deliver positive, they could be next.