Nothing, goes the maxim, clears the head faster than the sight of a noose. This is true for ordinary mortals like you and me. Despots intoxicated by the hallucination of indispensability are either puzzled or terrified by the notion that power is finite. Their cronies have always told them otherwise. Their palaces have insulated them from the street. The international order did business without the whisper of a question. Why bother?
Dictatorships are arrangements between elites. They begin, as in Hosni Mubarak’s case, as a lottery windfall. He would have retired into obscurity as a nondescript general with a few silly gongs on his breast if Anwar Sadat had not been assassinated by a soldier at a parade. [Since then, parading units do not carry live ammunition; which saved Rajiv Gandhi’s life during his visit to Colombo when all the man in uniform at the airport could do was attack India’s Prime Minister with a rifle butt.] Mubarak began his rule with a lie, promising democracy while he rearranged the instruments and institutions that would keep him in power for three decades. He is trying to hold on with yet another lie, the promise to go quietly in September.
The Army has provided the operative muscle to Mubarak, but from some distance, since it is a conscription force and does not want to lose its connect with the citizen. The bureaucracy pushed the files and picked up benefits. Media read from the Mubarak script and fawned over intermediaries of the palace. Foreigners swam in the Sharm-el-Sheikh and gasped at the treasures of King Tut.
It was a different story for the people. Fear was the toxic smog over Mubarak’s Egypt. It was not the menacing black that darkened Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from horizon to horizon. Mubarak was too Egyptian to be that crass. But an unmistakeable haze of threat overshadowed you the moment you stepped outside proscribed limits. The proscribed lines were not cultural. You cannot have tourism as your principal wage-earner and ban bikinis or bars. Limits applied to the engagement between citizen and authority.
Deviants, particularly anyone asking for human or political rights, were punished by prison. Democracy was dismissed as an invitation to chaos. The first alibi of Mubarak remains the last alibi of Mubarak. He is still trotting out this nonsense to the pitiful few who will listen. Perhaps he has actually begun to believe this rubbish. It is axiomatic that a despot must have contempt for his own people since he cannot trust them with collective common sense. Dissidents who became insistent, or those who dared to organise secular opposition, were picked by the dreaded Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, uninhibited by a compromised judicial service. The purpose was not merely to annihilate the victim but also send a chilling message to anyone foolish enough to believe in change. In the last decade, it was not only Mubarak who loomed over the nation, but his son Gamal, whose sole qualification lay in his genes.
It suited Mubarak to tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood (within parameters of course) as the only Opposition. He could point to them as the alternative and ask the West to choose. America and Europe convinced themselves that the emasculation of the Egyptian people was a price worth paying for Israel’s security. Once Egypt’s ruling class had been neutralized Palestine’s dream of an independent state remained just that, a dream. The US-sponsored Cairo-Tel Aviv deal maintained the status quo between existing nation states, and their dynastic regimes, but eroded Palestinian space tree by tree, orchard by orchard, yard by yard, settlement by settlement, year after year. It was the perfect trap.
That trap has been sprung open. Mubarak could not do two things, the first of which was arguably less dangerous for him than the second. He could not ban the Muslim congregational prayer every Friday. This became the public meeting of thousands of communities, united in reverence to God, but increasingly sceptical of the man who had imposed his authoritarian regime in Cairo. It is not an accident that the namaaz has become a recurring symbol of protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Nor could Mubarak censor Egyptian humour. The joke became a potent weapon of resistance. The Mukhabarat was helpless. A joke has no author. How do you send Mr Anonymous to jail? Laughter ripped apart Mubarak’s credibility during the long fallow years, until one sudden day it evolved into mass anger.
A state has many advantages in a confrontation with the people. It can twist the law under the pretext of maintaining order, even when it is the principal cause of disorder. A despot has even more advantages, because he is not in the least bothered by legitimacy: after all, a coup is an illegitimate birth. He can provoke violence and then cite violence as the predicted symptom of chaos. This is the final throw of Mubarak’s loaded dice.
A dictator has many routes back to square one. The people have only one road towards their horizon of democracy. They need heroes for the struggle is uneven. Egypt is trembling. If the people fail, the nation will fall into a dangerous abyss.