THE FALL OF MUBARAK; A NATION'S TURNING POINT
As at Thursday, February 10, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was still talking down on angry Egyptian protesters who for weeks had been telling him they were fed up with his leadership and would rather embrace change. Even his Vice President, Omar Suleiman addressed the people as if they did not quite matter. Both men were mistaken. By Friday, the Mubarak government had fallen, with the 82-year old dictator and his family running away from Cairo. Mubarak didn’t need to double check if he was still popular with the people: for 18 days, they had waged a principled war against him, insisting that he must give way so Egypt could progress. His exit resulted in a lot of dancing in the streets and shouts of Allah hu Akbar! The lessons of Mubarak’s fall are so well known they probably bear no repetition. Political leaders are invariably at the mercy of the people.
The failure to realise this led to the French Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Yellow Revolution, the Jasmine Revolution and now the Egyptian or Lotus Revolution. History is full of tales of so many dictators who had fallen because the people rose against them: Louis VXI, Idi Amin Dada, Papa Doc Duvalier, Baby Doc Duvalier, Collor de Mellor, the Nigerian military and so on. The details are all so painfully similar: the dictator, having spent so many years in office, and believing falsely in his own invincibility, soon becomes the victim of his own hubris. What has been proven in Egypt is that the nation is bigger than every individual, and that real power is in the hands of the people.
The Egyptians may have given the credit for their victory over Mubarak to God, but the truth is that they did it: they made that special moment beginning January 25, which climaxed on February 11, happen. The Egyptian revolution is a tribute to a people’s determination to take their destiny in their hands. How nice it would have been if the Nigerian people had shown the same resolve over the needless games of deception around late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s illness? That incident exposed a lot that is wrong not just with leadership in Nigeria but also the politics of the Nigerian union. I had written before now that the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, could happen here too, but the caveat to add to that in retrospect is that the kind of meeting of minds that drove the Egyptian Revolution to its peak may have been abbreviated here, not by faith in the urgency of change, for Nigerians are forever interested in change and progress, but an inevitable relapse into restrictive and obstructive primordial conclaves.
Were Hosni Mubarak to be a Nigerian, members of his ethnic group, religion, village, clan would have raised an alarm and protested about group discrimination or marginalisation. They would have left the issues at stake entirely alone. Mubarak ran Egypt for thirty years with an iron fist and was actively seeking to create a private dynasty. He stole about $70 billion of the people’s money for himself and members of his family. He practically turned Egypt into an outpost of Israeli and American interests in return for patronage and some $1.5 billion annual aid. He imposed emergency laws and manipulated the Constitution to sustain his hold on power. Meanwhile, the average Egyptian suffered poverty and unemployment and the scope of social alienation widened. It is instructive that the people were united in theri4 objections around these issues, generating a national consensus whose momentum has produced that telling historical moment. They all came together, plebeians and middle class, the poor and the rich, persons who ordinarily may never have cause to stand together, they were held together by a sense of identity ( a resolve that Egypt belongs to its people); the subway was shut down, they were stopped from using the internet and sending text messages on their cell phones (again an admission of the increasing power of technology), and by just marching and being disagreeable, they drove a dictator out of office.
But that moment is not strictly Egyptian. It should echo throughout the African continent and in all places where tyrants and their descendants still hold sway. There is a deep yearning for change in the heart of populations across the world. It is what brought Obama to power in the United States. It has made a Jonathan Presidency possible in Nigeria. It has driven a tyrant out of power in Egypt. The revolution began with Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, and now it has claimed a very big victim in Egypt; in Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, as elsewhere, the seeds of revolution are also germinating. For demystifying dictatorship, the Egyptians whose history is significantly full of revolutions, have proven that the people’s will can only be suppressed for a while but not forever. Egypt has had many turning points in its history - the revolution of 1919 resulting in independence in 1922, and significantly the 1952 Revolution which brought the military to power and resulted in the collapse of the monarchy. Mubarak had imposed the equivalent of a monarchy on modern Egypt; his government soon became a betrayal of the 1952 Revolution. In the long run, revolutionaries become parodies of their own roots. On July 26, 1952, King Farouk of Egypt was accused of corruption, of neglecting the people and pushing them into poverty and of mortgaging the sovereignty of Egypt for Western favours. The same allegations have been leveled against Hosni Mubarak, a later-day beneficiary of the 1952 Free Officers Revolution. But it is not the 1952 Revolution that has failed, it is the leadership which with the passage of time lost sight of its original mission. This is a familiar African tale also. Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, Kenya’s Arap Moi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equitorial Guinea’s Teodoro Nguema, and Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the most resilient of the remaining African dictators should look forward to the revolution that may await them.
In many ways, Mubarak’s exit leaves Egypt in a lurch, a turning point, a new beginning. The international community, the West in particular has been most forthcoming with the usual platitudes about how this is a great and historic moment for the Egyptians and how it marks a triumph of people power. Only Israel, obviously considering the implications for the Middle East peace process, has been openly honest enough to suggest that what matters is the outcome of the event. “The moment” says Israel, “is too important to draw immediate conclusions about the outcome.” What is certain is the morality tale of Hosni Mubarak’s fall. In the past 19 days, the Egyptian military as in 1952, has been in the forefront of the struggle, acting as the stabilising factor. With the military now holding the country together as it did in 1952, there is an element of a “coup d’etat” to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. In 1952, the loss of the 1948 Palestine war to Israel was a major causative factor, in 2011, similarly, the revolutionaries want to protect the integrity of Egypt. The only problem is that the same military that is standing in the vanguard is as corrupt as the leader that has been deposed. In 30 years, Mubarak gave new teeth to the culture of corruption. He leaves behind a corrupt military and a corrupt social elite. It will take more than the expulsion of one man for Egypt to recover itself. But as far as symbolism goes, Mubarak’s fall appropriately re-energises the entire nation with much hope. By the same token, the fall of Egypt into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood could derail the Middle East peace process and reinvent old animosities.
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu put his fingers on the future possibilities when he offered the following commentary: "First, Egyptians may choose to embrace the model of a secular reformist state with a prominent role for the military. There is a second possibility that the Islamists exploit the influence to gradually take the country into a reverse direction - not towards modernity and reform but backward. And there's still a third possibility - that Egypt would go the way of Iran, where calls for progress would be silenced by a dark and violent despotism that subjugates its own people and threatens everyone else." It is perhaps out of a realisation of these same possibilities that Mubarak chose to sound messianic in the face of the people’s revolt. If he had been a better leader, he could have prevented the implosion and he could have done a lot more to secure a collective sense of ownership. Many leaders don’t get it. In Nigeria, even in a process as simple as preparing for the 2011 polls, many prominent politicians are more interested in getting their own kith and kin and close friends into positions of authority. In at least one state in Nigeria, Kwara, I think, there is a Mubarak-like figure exercising similar powers!
By now, Mubarak should have learnt at least one lesson that most fallen dictators fail to anticipate: how the same power blocs that propped them up are ever so willing to ditch them for selfish interests. The United States has had to dump Mubarak: it was quite an amusing lesson in power politics watching President Barack Obama uttering familiar platitudes about people power and standing by the Egyptian people! Where? On CNN, of course. Departing Presidential spokesman, Robert Gibbs spoke shortly after to lay out points of American interest. Whatever role the international community plays in this saga, it is all things considered still an Egyptian affair. It is the future of Egypt that is at stake. The people had no specific programme as they shouted “Kifaya!” (Enough is enough) and called on the military to come to their rescue.
Revolutions do not deliver customised results. Mubarak’s exit may result in utter chaos. The economy needs to be managed and reformed; the country needs stability. Years of brutish and repressive laws must give way to institutional and legal reforms and greater freedoms for the people. The January 25 Revolutionaries of Egypt have very high expectations, the most basic of which is that they expect the revolution to result in meaningful transformation. But may be not. Mubarak’s successors may turn out to be worse thieves than he has been. One fellow quoted by the CNN declaimed that “the criminal has left the palace.” The future could in fact, produce worse criminals. In other African countries, notably Cote D’Ivoire, Uganda, and old Zaire, the dictator’s exit did not produce desired peace. Part of the logic of revolutions nonetheless is the right of the people to make mistakes, to change their minds, to make a choice, and to learn from their own mistakes. Mubarak’s fall won’t be Egypt’s last turning point or revolution, but the people have spoken, they have claimed ownership of their country and identity, and perhaps that is all that matters.
For our benefit, it is not only when the people hang out on the streets that they initiate a revolution. They can do so with sheer electoral activism. Nigerians have such an opportunity in April 2011. They can pick up the baton, by voting wisely, and by defending their votes, and thus pursue in unison, a ballot-based revolution. Meanwhile, the Egyptians owe their revolution to Mohammed Bouazizi, the self-immolating Tunisian cart pusher, hero of the Jasmine Revolution, who ignited the protests across the Maghreb and the Middle East. He is the strong breed whose scapegoatism has lit the flame of revolution. He deserves a monument in his honour in Tahrir Square, Cairo.