|Hosni Mubarak’s lax policies and nepotism has led to him being largely reviled and resented by the average Egyptian layman [Getty]|
The realist terminology of the ‘domino effect’ does not capture the agency that Arabs are today assuming to unseat Arab hegemons, from Cairo to Sana’a.
This agency is unshackling itself from a threefold dynamic: the fear of the Arab police state; Orientalist constructions demoting Arab agency; and Euro-American democratisation theorists’ obsession with structure, culture and top-down institution-building.
Similarly, this agency stumbles upon the structures of a world order driven by self-interest and impervious to the dreams of millions of Arabs to be free.
A precedent has been set in Tunisia, and Egypt is on the move. Whilst the challenges are awesome, the seeds for planting democratic dreams have begun by the display of people’s power in Tunisia.
Planting a dream
“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate,” said Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
And thus spoke the Tunisian people, ousting their dictator and unleashing shockwaves whose political reverberations will be felt for a long time. Today Nolan’s leitmotif of inception has a powerful resonance in the Arab world.
The Tunisian flag showing in the riots witnessed by many Arab cities manifest both inspiration and admiration. But more importantly, Tunisia is a dream come true. The dictator who was once fearsome and thought to be invincible fell and fled rapidly.
From Tunis to Cairo, “people’s power” represents a watershed, an Inception in the making. It now serves as a fount of democratic streams with a fierce and determined thirst for self-governance by the oppressed across the Arab geography.
The gimmicks seen since the ousting of Ben Ali are startling. Kuwaiti rulers offering free food, the Yemeni regime reducing prices by 10%, Jordan committing to maintenance of subsidies and raising wages, and similar measures in Egypt all did not appease the oppressed.
Waving the Tunisian flag in the ongoing uprisings represents more than an exhibitionist act of protest. It is a connection. It is an act of faith that shows that it is people’s power, not dictators, that is invincible. It is an avowal to fight and not wait for democracy to come embedded in Western armies or armadas as it did in Iraq in 2003.
More potently, it is a manifestation of a budding dream to be free, and people’s power is no longer an association to be made with Aquino’s Philippines, Vaclav’s Czechoslovakia or Walesa’s Poland. In history as in the lived and lively film of life, giant steps often result from little but creative and self-empowering dreams.
The incapacity to dream is a slow death. Mohamed Bou’azizi’s act of self-immolation on December 17 related to all those concerned with the human condition. The ensuing engagement through Twitter, Facebook, rap and fearless protest in Tunisia – and right now in Egypt – represent a united stand for popular sovereignty. Maybe more than that, it is akin to a text, or a manifesto, of life.
The right to dream cannot be entrusted to demagogues, megalomaniacs or leaders without the earnestness to be of import to their peoples.
The masses want to dream their own dreams, unhindered by the dreams of the collectors of baby tigers, gold diggers or junior Pharaohs. Here begins reclamation and assumption of lost agency.
Resurgence of a Renaissance
Egypt and Tunisia are the two states with the longest tradition of statehood in the Arab Middle East.
Both were a source of light in the Arab age of liberal thought from the mid-1800s. Both experimented with the first elected councils and both exercised intelligent syncretism in order to wed modernity and tradition.
Post-independence Tunisia adopted French dirigisme with some liberal secular brand of nation and state-building. Egypt fell under the spell of top-down socialist national-secular guided by a pan-Arab agenda. The latter was ruled by the military, the former by a Francophile lawyer.
However, there is one difference as far the current people’s power protest sweeping the region. People’s power in Tunisia has fanned the winds of popular protests in several Arab cities. Success of people’s power in Egypt would change the entire Middle East region, if not the world.
It would have the effect of a collapsing house of cards; elites, policies, alliances, strategic doctrines, and Arab-Arab relations would be changed forever. It would re-write Egypt-Israeli relations as much as reposition the Palestinian question at the centre not only of Arab-Israeli relations, but also of Arab-Western relations.
This is not to say Egypt would renege on its agreements with Israel. Rather, Egypt would regain its status as the engine of the Arab world, dynamically championing fairness, legitimacy of Palestinian rights, and just solution as the only route to brave and just peace.
Democratising the Arab world would bring to power fiercely pro-Palestinian forces unencumbered by realpolitik and not desensitised by the diplomatic and ethical apologism on the question of Palestine – whether US, Quartet or UN-led. A dangerous cul de sac is obviously conspicuous.
Thus far the only party gaining from peace negotiations or absence thereof are the Israelis. This is why the democratic dream and winds of people’s power blowing across the Arab world must no doubt worry Israel more than any other nation on earth.
Israel is ensconced in the knowledge that many of the existing delegitimised Arab ruling elites have more or less dropped Palestine from their foreign policy-making agendas.
Within the Arab World, should people’s power succeed – and momentum is already in place for Mubarak to change his mind about running for a sixth term, and to abandon hereditary plans for his son to take over power – Libya’s dynasty will be next to be swept away by the wrath of a people bored with Ghaddafi, worn out by his oppressive clan.
Egypt: What went wrong?
Mubarak has but himself to blame for the “day of wrath” that engulfed all of Egypt’s metropolises, from Suez to Cairo.
After nearly 30 years in power, his Egypt lags behind in democratisation and economic development and distributive justice within. Without, Egypt’s stature as a pan-Arab and global leader – particularly to its own national security, from Palestine to Sudan – has been blunted like the inept use of a water stone. Ahmed Abul Gheit has to be Egypt’s worst foreign ministers in years.
It is son Gamal who, as de facto president, has been reordering the domestic agenda through key ministers and sycophantic allies of the ruling NDP.
The uncontrollable wrath expressed by millions of Egyptians today derives from the damage afflicted upon a whole nation by Gamal and his entourage of self-serving NDP stalwarts, whose corruption, nepotism and disregard for the intelligence of Egypt’s people litter the pages of hundreds of opposition newspapers.
Mubarak’s mistake is that he has increasingly given too much latitude to his son and his cabal, including people like Ahmed Ezz, Fathi Sorour, Safwat Sherif and Ali Eddin Helal.
Plus, the liberalising policies introduced completely ignored the question of distributive justice.
Gamal was trying to flaunt his economic chops to the tiny, global, corporate community, underestimating how dismantling the welfare state first introduced by Nasser could prove calamitous for Egypt’s denizens, and for his own survival as a presidential hopeful.
But his assumption that Egypt’s millions of inhabitants are happy being forever the down-trodden – what is called in Egyptian vernacular the ghalaba – that pay total deference to the effendi and pasha cast is now being disproved.
Gamal’s political career is certain to meet its waterloo when the angry masses finally win the day.
It is always a gamble to play with an Egyptian’s bread.
Tossing the dice
Gamal and his inner NDP circle undermined one of Mubarak senior’s rules of political engagement: limited oppression with safety valves is preferable to total control of society.
This is where Gamal committed a cardinal sin by ignoring his father’s coaching. He, and the likes of Ahmed Ezz and Ali Eddin Helal, gamble their futures by excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties.
This cabal premeditatedly rigged the November 2010 parliamentary elections. It thought it was the route to securing NDP domination over further constitutional gerrymandering and facilitating with little or no opposition either a sixth term for Mubarak senior or his a first term for Mubarak junior.
That was an unpardonable blunder. The 420 seats, including independents who contested the country’s most openly and arrogantly rigged-in-truth NDP candidates, gave the ruling party an unprecedented majority in the newly expanded 518-seat parliament.
Mubarak senior knew his limits and devised mechanisms and safety valves for political decompression. He allowed the Muslim Brotherhood a margin of existence, knowing it was an important channel and forum for containing anti-regime anger.
He allowed the press a degree of free expression that was completely absent in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. NGOs even if partly harassed were active. Kefaya, Egypt’s “Movement for Change”, staged many demonstrations and sit-ins that communicated messages to Mubarak and his regime.
Gamal would have been like most dictators: one who is awful at politics. But he did not have the cunning to understand these subtleties.
The end is nigh!
For Mubarak’s era, the end is nigh.
Even if Mubarak – whose army far outweighs that of the ousted Ben Ali in size, strength and loyalty – prevents a repeat of the Tunisian scenario, the impending doom has already been decided in the streets of Egypt.
The NDP has been denuded and exposed for what it is – a party that draws crowds only when it bribes them with money, posts, or favours.
No NDP counter mass mobilisation has been possible in response to the riots; the usual rent-a-crowd tactic has not worked this time round.
Dismissals of cabinet members will not be enough if it will recycle old faces from the NDP to placate the masses, but holding new elections can go some way towards appeasement of the masses, political elites and civil society.
Mubarak has no option now but to announce – honourably – retirement and, against his wife’s tenacity, order Gamal’s own retirement from politics.
Mubarak has an advantage over the Tunisia Ben Ali ruled over: formidable political forces, strong judiciary and a long-standing tradition in free press.
They’re also credible leaders, such El-Baradei, with whom he can seek an agenda to meet societal demands for urgent reform. Moreover, he has time, short as it may be, to draw the curtain on the NDP-failed-era or join Ben Ali in lonesome and humiliating exile.
The words uttered too little too late by Ben Ali were: “I have got the message.”
Mubarak senior and junior have for long ignored two messages from civil society: no to prolonged rule by the father, and no to hereditary rule by the son.
The sooner they declare that, the better for Egypt and for the Mubaraks.
Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.