Until the recent eruption along the Nile of the hugest pro-democracy protests ever to shake the Arab world, Egyptian officials arrogantly trumpeted that their country was immune against an uprising similar to the one that forced Tunisia’s dictator into exile in mid-January.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Abul Gheith called speculations that what happened in Tunisia could spread to Egypt “empty words,” reported the state-run daily Al Ahram, the oldest in the region, on January 17. He also paid lip service to the “will of the people of Tunisia,” a week before his government and its subservient media started ignoring deafening calls by millions of Egyptians to bring President Hosni Mubarak’s lengthy and autocratic rule to an end.
Although more entrenched and experienced in keeping civil society on a tight leash than his fugitive Tunisian counterpart, the aging Mubarak has been gradually losing touch with most Egyptians, particularly those born after his ascent to power in 1981. Many of them, currently on the front line of what people refer to as the ‘Revolution,’ acknowledge that they have been inspired by the surprising victory of young and brave protesters in Tunisia over its corrupt and arrogant ruling family.
Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt rose against their leaders - two former army officers of modest social background – because they turned their backs on their commitment to lead their respective countries to prosperity and security and to constantly abide by the rule of law. Both increasingly gave the impression that they cared more about the well-being of their families and flatterers and the opinions of their western friends than their respective constituents.
After toppling his predecessor Habib Bourguiba in 1987, Ben Ali, obviously less skilled and appreciated in western capitals than Mubarak, told a Tunisian journalist that his role model was his “cautious” Egyptian counterpart, in power since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by radical Islamists.
The rising influence of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, 48, and his cronies over Egypt’s political and economic life since the turn of this century was felt by Egyptians of different walks of life, including people traditionally supportive of his father, as a humiliating attack on their dignity.
His rapid promotion within the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party was widely seen as part of a plan to groom a young man for succession whose only claim to fame was to be the son of a president, who owes his ascent to power to the 1952 Free Officers Revolution. The collapse of King Farouk’s rule and the proclamation in 1953 of the Egyptian Republic was an inexhaustible source of pride for Egyptians. It also inspired the emergence of other Arab republican regimes, even though all of them soon turned out to be republics of corruption and repression.
The increasing influence of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, and his in-laws over political and economic institutions - in a country deemed in the wake of its independence in 1956 as the most qualified candidate in the region for democratic rule - was not less insulting. Tunisia granted women unparalleled rights among Muslim countries and started to make significant steps toward combating illiteracy, prejudice and poverty nearly 55 years ago.
Unlike Ben Ali, Mubarak seemed aware that silencing critics and journalists could be very costly. His predecessor was gunned down a few weeks after jailing scores of journalists and opposition figures of different political leanings in September 1981. In 2004, he promised to initiate a law that would end the imprisonment of journalists for doing their job. This promise, which remains empty, then prompted a standing ovation during a memorable meeting of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. It was soon followed by a wave of prosecution and detention of journalists, unseen even before the country’s independence from Britain. In 2008, Egypt and Saudi Arabia led the Cairo-based Arab League, which is widely seen as a club of Arab autocrats, to adopt a charter targeting privately owned radio and TV stations guilty of airing criticism of Arab governments.
Attacks on local and international journalists and the free flow of information, including through mobile phones, reached its peak since the eruption of the current uprising in Egypt. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented at least 140 direct attacks on journalists and media outlets since January 30.
The enormously rigged parliamentary elections in November, coupled with drastic restrictions on independent reporting, dealt a severe blow to Mubarak’s crumbling credibility, even among small and rather submissive opposition parties. Unlike the 2005 elections, they were reminiscent of the Tunisian-style elections during Ben Ali’s dark “Era of Change.”
As he stubbornly clings to what remains of his declining prerogatives, Mubarak seems unfortunately unaware that he has missed precious opportunities to patch up his tattered credibility and that the best thing he could do now for his country and legacy is to relinquish power, as millions of Egyptians have been calling for over the past weeks.
Egyptians who are systematically raised to believe that their country’s fate is to play a leadership role in the Arab world seem increasingly determined, since the downfall of the despot of “Little Sweet Tunisia,” not to end their uprising until Mubarak steps down.