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Egypt, and the thirty years of solitude

 The epic events in the Arab world’s heartland are also a lesson in the loneliness of power, says Goran Fejic.

As the joyful crowd, deriding curfews and defying tanks, asserts its dominance over the Nile megalopolis, a weird thought comes to my mind: Hosni Mubarak must be a very lonely man. Had he not jailed his political opponents, had he not alienated himself from all segments of a lively young society, he would have interlocutors now: someone to negotiate with, to discuss reforms, to seek some common ground with, or at least, to prepare an honourable retreat.  

But, power, as opposed to a good meal or good music, seems to be more enjoyable when it is not shared, when you have it all for yourself, entire and undivided. And then, at some point, it gets stuck in your throat and the piece is so big that you choke. 

The powerful distant friend from across the Atlantic is obviously embarrassed. He too would be better off if the old man had some domestic interlocutors: one could then facilitate contacts, mediate, recommend something more specific, rather than repeating endlessly the litany on human rights and democracy, hardly credible any longer coming from where it does.

This is now all wishful thinking. The president is alone and faraway friends are unable to help, even if they want to. The way they “helped” him so far is now of no use as their generously donated fighter-jets and helicopters are unable to disperse the crowd. They only reveal their true nature as expensive toys that helped dictators all over the middle east protect the American strategic interest while people advanced their claims to education, jobs and dignity. Eventually, they prove to be poisoned gifts. Most annoyingly, they still bear the donor’s tag.

These days may herald a new era for Egypt. Cairo may again become what it once used to be: a great cultural capital of the Arab world, a radiating centre of new ideas of freedom and justice.  

Time has come to say goodbye to the old friend. Yes it’s hard, especially when you share with him so many deep secrets likely to be unearthed when the angry populace gets into the palace.

“The palace”, did I say? That reminds me the first sentences of a great novel:

“Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur. Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the lombards of William Dampier during the building's heroic days gave way. It was like entering the atmosphere of another age, because the air was thinner in the rubble pits of the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient, and things were hard to see in the decrepit light. All across the first courtyard, where the paving stones had given way to the underground thrust of weeds, we saw the disorder of the post of the guard who had fled, the weapons abandoned in their racks, the big, long rough-planked tables and plates containing the leftovers of the Sunday lunch that had been interrupted by panic...”

I don’t wish death to the old man. But he may indeed do well to leave as the “stagnant time inside” is being stirred by a powerful wind. And there are so many great novels he could start reading, late in his life. They are so much more enjoyable than power.  


About the author

Goran Fejić was senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

Read On

International IDEA

Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

International Crisis Group - Egypt

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

Bruce K Rutherford, Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot, A History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2007)

Gabriel Garcia Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch (HarperCollins, 2006)

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

More On

Goran Fejic is senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He is writing here in a personal capacity

Also by Goran Fejic in openDemocracy:

"The trial and the wall" (6 November 2009)

"Midnight in Belgrade, dusk in Brussels" (12 July 2010)

"A tale of miners, presidents, and nations" (18 October 2010)

"Tunisia, or democracy's future in jasmine" (25 January 2011)


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