Mubarak’s Last Act

As a native Egyptian who left seeking opportunities for a better, more humane life unavailable under Mubarak’s rule, I see the events currently unfolding in Egypt as both surreal and inevitable.  It all began in 1975, when Anwar El Sadat chose an inconspicuous military hero to be his vice president. The choice was surprising because at that time, young Muhammad Hosni Mubarak was a leading air force officer, but by no means Mohamed Al-Gamasy, the outstanding leader of the 1973 Egyptian victory. Sadat’s choice was precipitated by his fear that influential army personnel would collude to take down his regime after his peace talks with Israel began. Sadat’s best option was an unassuming, loyal young man to whom the choice was also a surprise. In 1979, Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel under the auspices of the United States, shocking many Egyptians and Arabs since it was unbecoming for an Arab president to visit the Knesset or shake hands with an Israeli leader. Before long, the cultural milieu in Egypt and the Arab world mobilized against Sadat, and two years later, Sadat, fully attired in his military regalia, on Oct. 6, 1981 – the anniversary of the October victory – was shot down. Mubarak, who was at Sadat’s side, escaped with just a sling on his injured arm.

It is Egypt’s constitutional law that when there is a vacancy in the presidential office, the speaker of the People’s Assembly temporarily assumes the presidency. But it is also a practice that the vice president becomes the most influential figure in the state, and hence the natural president-in-waiting. Just a week later, Mubarak took the oath of presidency, with a declared determination to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime. His first act was the imposition of an Emergency Law, initially accepted by Egyptians who hoped it would assist the government in expeditiously arresting Sadat’s killers without bureaucratic hassle. It did not cross anyone’s mind that the Emergency Law would continue for the next 30 years. During his first term, Mubarak grew more popular, and many Egyptians liked him. He would appear on national TV in Egyptian-made suits, wearing Egyptian-made shoes, supporting Egyptian-made products. He would oversee the grand opening of Egyptian factories, expanding the country’s horizons (the Toshka project, for instance) and creating new jobs to cement and foster Egypt’s nascent economy. During those early years, Mubarak made it clear that he did not want the burden of the presidency. He was ruling the country during a transitional period, and the time would come when free elections would take place and a new president would be chosen. The first six years passed quickly, and major newspapers like al-Ahram rallied for a second term. This forced plea for Mubarak to continue was actually the beginning of an unforeseen tyranny at the heart of the Middle East.

A shrewd despot, Mubarak convinced Egyptians that he was after Sadat’s killers. But he was systematically erasing Sadat’s achievements like the October war and the peace treaty with Israel. Mubarak assumed the sole heroism of the October war and became famous among Egyptians as the man who crippled the Israeli air force, while Sadat was reduced to the one who made the decision to go to war. Unlike Sadat, Mubarak never visited Israel; he kept his distance while preserving the peace treaty. He continued to be a U.S. ally, winning its support and $1.5 billion every year. Since 1981, Mubarak has successfully convinced the Democrats and the Republicans that his presence in the Middle East is crucial to the maintenance of peace. America, struggling with post-Cold War diplomacy, did not pay the Mubarak regime much attention, following the common aphorism: “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

As Mubarak’s popularity dwindled and his rule started to take the form of an authoritarian regime, especially after he continued the Emergency Law, many Egyptians became disillusioned with his politics. In his third term as president, Mubarak not only manipulated influential media outlets like al-Ahram, but he also exploited his authority, using the Emergency Law to arrest opposition figures for no apparent reason other than objecting to his policies. The year 2005 saw a culmination of all those factors. Mubarak realized that there is a new generation in Egypt intent on exposing his dictatorship, so to placate the growing discontent, he allowed for opposition newspapers and provided a forum for managed critique. As long as he was still controlling the military and police, Mubarak’s throne was safe. It was also that year that Ayman Nour ran against Mubarak. Unsurprisingly, Mubarak won the election with a sweeping majority. Two months later, Nour was charged and jailed for forgery and was not released until Barack Obama became president and Mubarak yielded to the pressure of the United States to release Nour.

It did not escape the United States that Mubarak is a dictator. A look at the State Department’s reports reveals egregious atrocities against human rights: labor camps for political prisoners, waterboarding, and torture techniques of the worst forms against Egyptians. Mubarak, therefore, put America between two fires. On the one hand, he is the concierge of America’s interests in the Middle East, and on the other he is a ruthless dictator.

The Egyptian revolution, catalyzed by the Tunisian revolt, is a culmination of all these years of oppression. Mubarak’s regime has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, annihilated the middle class, left thousands of Egyptian youth jobless and futureless, forced intellectuals to leave the country or face imprisonment, quashed every opportunity for civil dialogue, and prepared his son to take over. Worse than even Castro, Mubarak imposed a cultural isolationism on Egypt since 1981, irreparably paralyzing the country’s educational apparatus. He treated the country’s wealth as his personal piggy bank and used the police and military as his own bodyguards. This sheer abuse of authority under the watch of the whole world and under the auspices of the United States has resulted in the angry revolution that we witness today.

Despite having supporting figures such as Ayman Nour and the Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian revolution has no central leadership, a testimony to Mubarak’s successful dissolution of Egypt’s middle class. Mubarak’s liquidation of his cabinet (not a new move) and his appointment of a vice president were not genuine attempts to appease the Egyptian people or the then-dazed American administration, but a Machiavellian double punch to hold onto power. His latest address tells it all: a total apathy toward the damage he has inflicted upon the Egyptians. His self-congratulatory rhetoric of denial, which only a psychopathic dictator of the worst kind could utter at this late stage, only confirms the hopeless condition of his state of mind. To come to terms with the fact that he is a liability to his nation must be too hard for the infirm 83-year-old autocrat to grasp.

Now the Egyptians finally have the world’s solidarity in their campaign against dictatorship. All over the country, from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south, millions of Egyptians are carrying their destiny in their own hands, demonstrating, vowing to put an end to Mubarak’s rule of tyranny. Today, the Egyptian people refuse to be silenced and oppressed. The time has come for them to embrace a new horizon of democracy and a better future where constitutional law is honored, the rights of all citizens respected, and shared governance practiced. This bottom-up revolution ends decades of cronyism and exploitation. For perhaps the first time in Egypt’s history, it aspires to put the nation before the military, the people before the government, and the rule of law above all.

Some have voiced apprehension about the prospects of Egypt’s leadership after Mubarak, fearing a Taliban-like Islamist takeover or an Iran-1979-style revolution. But we must not let fear direct our responses. Egypt is not Iran, nor will its revolution yield an Iran-like outcome. With a population of over 85 million citizens, Egypt has a diversity of political parties and religious affiliations, not to mention ideological orientations, whose voices balance and dialogue with one another. Egypt deserves that we respond with correct knowledge. I urge the people of this country to stop reducing Islamic countries and the Arab world to a monolith. The mainstream popular force in Egypt would welcome a marriage between Islam and politics, but not militant Islam. We must not confuse terms like “Islam” and “Islamism,” or see Islam as a scary and undifferentiated mass. The Egyptian state has been Islamic, and its continuation as such should not be a cause for fear or concern. This is a citizens’ revolution, not an Islamic revolt.

A flourishing democracy at the heart of the Arab world will normalize and nourish the political climate in the Middle East. Any country in the world should have the right to determine its own form of government and leadership. If the Egyptian people decide that a liberal and secular state is their best option, or that Islam must have a prominent role in government, so be it. It is time to accept that Western liberal democracy is not the only model for democratic government. Framing the Egyptians’ pursuit of democracy and reducing it to an “Islamist takeover” is a myopic return to Orientalism.

Author: Mohammad Salama

Mohammad Salama is a native Egyptian, currently assistant professor and coordinator of the Arabic program and core faculty member of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History (I.B. Tauris, 2011) and co-editor of German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust and Post-War Germany (Columbia University Press, 2011).