Throughout the upheaval in Egypt, the world held its breath in anticipation of a repeat of a Tiananmen-type crackdown in Cairo, a reference to the June 4, 1989 massacre in Beijing when soldiers of China’s Popular Liberation Army (PLA) systematically open fired on Chinese students protesting against tyranny and for Democracy in that city’s largest square. Fortunately, this particular incident, which embodied authoritarianism at its worst, did not materialize in Egypt even though Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force general, commanded the loyalty of that country’s Armed Forces. Judging Mubarak’s desperate attempt to cling to power, it is obvious that he could have resorted to a similar tactic or worse, except that two factors prevented the aging authoritarian from going down that path. Nevertheless, hundreds of Egyptians were killed during the uprising and with reports of the fallen president and his family having stolen billions from their countrymen, the Hosni Mubarak story may be far from over.
Because Egypt’s generals prefer US’ M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16s to Russia’s T-90 and Sukhoi Su-30s, they were loath to jeopardize the modernization of that country’s armed forces, even if that entailed abandoning one of their own. Therefore, Washington’s unequivocal warning to Mubarak that the use of U.S weaponry by the military against the protesters was unacceptable had left the beleaguered tyrant with no other option but to comply. Moreover, like the Filipinos in 1986 and the Russians in 1991, the Egyptians have learned to bestow on their country’s Armed Forces the title of savior of the nation and woo them to their side. This approach had the effect of mellowing the reactionaries among the Officer Corps and enlisting the support of the rank and file. Needless to say, even passionate crowds have become adept at utilizing diplomacy to further their goals. In the end, Egypt’s Armed Forces came through and forced Mubarak out, although the fundamentals that allowed him to stay in power for close to 30 years will survive his ouster.
Political decisions by nature always take a life of their own, regardless of efforts by their initiators to steer them in a particular direction. Delusional to the end, Mubarak sincerely or rather arrogantly believed that he was the last rampart against chaos, which explains his unsuccessful effort at presiding over the transition to a democratic and transparent system as demanded by the U.S and other Western powers. Paradoxically, Mubarak’s stubbornness may have been more detrimental to Egypt’s entrenched military establishment than Washington, which was worried about a possible radicalization of the protests that would have benefited the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Ultimately, the army will lose the privileged position it held in the country since 1952, when a group of nationalist army officers overthrew King Farouk I. In retrospect, had Mubarak given up earlier, his resignation could have led to a civilian administration totally beholden to the protesters and their demands, which would certainly have included the abrogation of the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. His obstinate nature effectively thwarted a true revolution in Egypt, since his removal from power became the focus of the revolt and took the sail out the protesters’ goal of bringing the dismantlement of the repressive state he presided over for almost 30 years.
With a Supreme Military Council officially in charge of the country, Egyptians will have to defer to the military’s propensity for law and order and settle for incremental political and economic reforms that may never satisfy their desire to live in a democratic and prosperous state. Despite its huge population (85 million) relative to other countries in the region, Egypt is no longer the politically predominant Arab state that it was under Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70) and Anwar Al-Sadat (1970-81). The real threat to that country’s future and the region is a demagogue politician attempting to stake a claim to that past glory, currently an unlikely possibility, rather than the Muslim fundamentalists who don’t stand a chance of taking power in the near future. In 1979 Iran, the protesters considered the Shah (Mohammed Reza Pahlavi) a US puppet and wanted to recover their country’s sovereignty which, naturally, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a fervent nationalist and anti-Western cleric to take over. Egypt, on the other hand, is a confident nation, conscious of its responsibilities and limits in an evolving geopolitical environment. The fact that the demonstrators never equated Mubarak’s close ties to the U.S and Israel as the source of their torments is an indication that the Egyptians favor the present course minus the systemic repression and corruption.
Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), unlike the charismatic Nasser and courageous Sadat, was a caretaker for the military establishment that rules Egypt since 1952. He was a man who served his country for six decades as a soldier and politician. For that reason, he should be allowed to enjoy a dignified retirement in the land he so faithfully served and spare the ignominy of an exile. Though the military was right in orchestrating his departure, the generals must see to it that the man retains his dignity and serves Egypt as a senior statesman. Vilified and hated by the angry protestors, Mubarak will nonetheless be remembered fondly by many Egyptians, and his having been on the world stage for close to 30 years is an asset to the next generation of Egyptian leaders and Egypt that should not be thrown away.
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