January 31, 2011

Mubarak and Me

I grew up in Egypt and Hosni Mubarak was my uncle. To be honest, I think he was an uncle, father or grandfather to the 66 percent of Egyptians who are under 30. In fact, even if you were older than him, you probably still saw Mubarak as a fatherly figure. I wasn't born in Egypt. I arrived as an 18-year old Arabic student and I left a jaded Middle East correspondent hitting 30. But it was difficult to avoid the effects of an extremely well-crafted state propaganda machine that relied as much on the threat of thinly veiled force as it did on subtle manipulation.

Uncle Mubarak ran a very tight ship. It wasn't that he was mean. It was more that he didn't want you to hurt yourself in your youthful exuberance. Just to make sure you knew that he cared, there were quite a few pictures of him looking like the kind yet tough teacher you wish you had in school. Mubsy, as we used to call him at work, didn't look like those other leaders who liked to see their photos all over the place. He didn't have Hafez al Asad's dead-eye menace or Vladamir Putin's unspoken snarl. No, Mubarak looked like he was there for you. The problem was that he was everywhere, he wasn't going anywhere and, in the end, it was clear he wasn't actually helping.

In the beginning, Mubarak was more than an uncle. In fact, he was more than a man. He was somewhere between the Queen and the Prophet Mohammad (imagine being British Muslim). Mubarak represented Egyptian pride. He was the former airforce hero. He was a steady hand and a cool eye. He was ibn el-balad (son of the soil). At the same time, he was blameless. If something was wrong, it couldn't be his fault. Even if he said he was ultimately responsible, you wanted to say; "No, no. How could it be you? But thank you for manning up to shoulder the burden. I would have expected nothing less." Mubarak was familiar like a family member, but, at the same time, so much better than we could ever hope to be.

As a badly behaved 19-year old student, I and three friends decided to get our revenge on a tight-of-fist-yet-wide-of-girth landlord who had told us he was keeping our deposit while boasting of his generosity in the same breath. As we left his flat we deposited empty cans of tuna everywhere and opened the front door to the stray cats that inhabited the building. We spent three nights in a Cairo jail for our trouble but were released uncharged by a senior police officer who made sure we knew we were lucky to have been arrested in a country ruled by a man as benevolent as the great Hosni Mubarak. The officer was right in a way. Uncle Mubarak liked you if you were a wealthy foreigner with the right passport. I wouldn't have been so lucky if I had been one of the poor Egyptians beaten in front of me with rubber hoses. And, I definitely did not want to be the man in the next cell over whose blood I saw in thick pools on the concrete floor.

In reality, Mubarak didn't have it easy. He was the fourth leader of the Egypt's Free Officers' regime which came to power in a military coup against a constitutional monarchy in 1952. Egypt has a long history of being at the forefront of Middle East affairs and its people have a strong sense of pride. Political squabbling, corrupt politicians and disastrous war against the newly formed state of Israel motivated the middle class military professionals to remove their king, and British influence along with him. The coup's leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, made Egypt the focal point of Arab hopes and earned their eternal admiration. In reality, he achieved little. His successor, Anwar el-Sadat switched the regime from the pro-Soviet to the pro-Western camp during the cold war. Sadat realised post-independence Egypt's central problem; it's economic muscle didn't match its ambition.

To be the power it wanted to be, Egypt needed a stable political system based on rule by consensus. This would allow it to build a state machinery that would allow government to be effective and nimble enough to generate economic growth. With a strong body politic and economy, Egypt would have the independence and resources it needed to project its strength. Egypt's military leaders, however, didn't see it that way. Their phobia of political competition acquired by their experience of the constitutional monarchy they replaced prodded them to the conclusion that Egyptians were not ready for democracy. They were too "unruly" or "hot blooded" (often said with a hint of pride). Once the rulers had adopted a colonial view of their fellow countrymen, they replicated their mode of rule. Members of their own caste - other military men - were the only ones to be trusted with positions of power and authority.

The Free Officer regime was built on the tacit understanding that the officers would restore Egyptian pride. However, the problem with a rule-by-military-clique approach to government is that it does little for long-term development. Sadat's solution to this problem was to leverage Egypt's strategic value to the United States as a source of income.

Mubarak, when he took over after Sadat's assassination, decided to double down. He saw stability and security as paramount, with his continued rule as vital to both. But, he faced a conundrum. How could Nasser's Egypt be dependent for its survival on US aid and western tourist dollars? A more inventive leader might have found another way, but slow and steady bomber pilot Mubarak decided on bluff and relied on Egyptian pride to make it work. Under no circumstances, he seemed to have decided, would greater freedoms be risked.

The disaster for Egypt was that the relationship with the US and the collective voluntary hypnotism worked - for a while. Much needed reforms to the state were avoided through reliance on aid, grants, debt forgiveness (after the first US-Iraq war) and US inclination to look the other way. The civil service was not stream lined, nor were workers' pay increased. All the while, corruption stifled the growth of small business (the backbone of a successful economy, corroded the state's ability to educate its younger generation or even keep its citizen's safe when they used public transport

Mubarak stifled any dissent by blurring the line between loyalty to him and patriotism while creating a state that totally extricated any sense of civic participation or responsibility. There were no elected town councils, provincial assemblies or trade unions with any real power. The only public bodies there were became vehicles for patronage with shady businessmen or prominent families vying and bribing to be seen to have Mubarak's stamp of approval. All the while, politics was stage-managed and Mubarak was destined to win. The result was a Frankenstein country - a powerful and influential army and a massive internal security force. While opposition politicians had no experience or knowledge of what it would take to run the country, and the political culture didn't differentiate between party, state and country.

In my book The Long Struggle (shameless plug) I mention an episode when I met Egyptian journalist friends at the journalist union in Cairo. One was from the opposition Nasserite party but argued vehemently that Mubarak's party should be the only one allowed to exist (he just wanted it to change its policies a little). During one election, I remember an eccentric old man who ran the right-wing Umma (Nation) Party say at a press conference that he would take off his shoe and beat anyone who didn't vote for Mubarak.

It wasn't all based on subtle subterfuge. The regime also used coercion and force. The closest I came to being shot was not in Iraq, Gaza, the West Bank or Darfur. It was on the grounds of a leafy Cairo villa that served as the HQ of the liberal Wafd Party. The leader Nomaan Goma was popularly understood to be a government stooge who spent all his time subverting any party activity aimed against the regime. He sometimes appeared on television sitting meekly near the president at the odd public occasion. One Saturday, the party had decided to oust Gomaa but he was holed up in the HQ with hired thugs and refused to leave. The thugs were lent by the government. When party members started banging on the door, the thugs fired from the other side. A bullet whizzed past me at chest height.

The system of government Mubarak inherited but then perpetuated contributed to his undoing. But the consequences of his method of rule and the acquiescence of his allies will be felt by Egyptians for some time to come. Mubarak often said he was working towards a gradual democratic transformation. But his actions did not bare out his words. Any credible secular party trying to establish itself was routinely denied permission. Parties that already existed were subverted from the inside. Secular political leaders like Ayman Nour were harassed and jailed on trumped up charges. Islamist politicians - even moderate centrists - were subjected to military courts and jailed by the thousands. Elections were regularly rigged quite blatantly, and often pretty badly (with journalists covering them often getting arrested). Secular middle class women who demonstrated in support of independent judges and secular democratic reform were sexually assaulted. All this generated little complaint from the United States.

Sometimes, the United States itself became an indirect target of the regime's spin. The fact that human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim had accepted foreign (including US) funds for his centre and had US citizenship was used to insinuate allegations of espionage. Every now and again, the security services would arrest gay men. The leaked details would suggest they were "imitating US lifestyles" and the state had acted to uphold Islamic values. I often heard Mubarak giving impromptu Arabic interviews to local journalists where he would allege that the Muslim Brotherhood was supported by the United States to destabilise the country.

Some of the US and UK coverage of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations happening now suggests that extremists are waiting to take over. Considering Mubarak's manipulation of feelings towards the United States and suppression of moderate Islamists and secularists, it's a surprise that the demonstrators are not all extremist Jihadis.

However, the legacy of Mubarak's rule means that there are few leaders with any of the contacts, stature and relationships that would allow government to function if Mubarak's regime was removed root and branch. Few people outside the ruling circle even have any idea of what the country's real financial situation is. Those who demand that the peace treaty with Israel be cancelled have no idea what part it plays in keeping their country solvent.

There is hope. The Egyptians who turned up to prevent the looting of the Cairo Museum, the popular committees, the Muslim-Christian cooperation show glimmers of hope that Egyptians - despite the best efforts of three decades of Mubarak - have retained the civic values that will be vital for their future.