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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This story about Egyptian President Mubarak illustrates the greatness of The Times.


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a televised statement on Thursday night.

From The New York Times:

Hosni Mubarak’s legacy was supposed to be stability. During almost three decades in power, he rejected bold action in favor of caution. He took half-steps at economic liberalization, preserved the peace with Israel, gave his police force the power to arrest without charge and allowed only the veneer of democracy to take hold

But history upended Mr. Mubarak, and his fall came as suddenly and surprisingly as his unlikely elevation to the presidency 30 years ago. Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt rose up against him. The streets and squares filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters day and night until he could no longer deny the inescapable conclusion that in order to restore stability, he needed to go.

It was an unexpected epitaph for a military man who until recently was revered — and reviled — as Egypt’s modern-day pharaoh, serving longer than any contemporary Egyptian leader since Muhammad Ali, the founder of the modern state. “He’s the accident of history who brilliantly survived as the longest accidental ruler of Egypt,” said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar at the University of Notre Dame who, like many other Egyptians living abroad, rushed to Tahrir Square in recent days to share in the moment.

In his final appearance on state television on Thursday, when he astounded most of his listeners by appearing to say he would remain in office, he was no longer the stocky, confident military man who was the only leader most Egyptians had ever really known. At 82, he was frail and thin, with dyed black hair and a sometimes poignant undercurrent of self-justification.

The Egyptian public, Egyptian political and military leaders, and American officials all expected him to say he was handing over power. But he apparently could not bring himself to say so, clinging to his vision of himself as a reluctant leader tapped by fate to lead a nation that could not survive without his guiding hand.

With his authority already belittled by the crowds in the streets, with the people no longer silenced by the fear his security apparatus had enforced, his words served only to demonstrate how out of touch he had become.

“I have given my life serving Egypt and the people,” he said, suggesting it was he who was tired of them, and not the other way around.

He failed this time using tactics that had so long sustained his rule: the ability to divide and conquer the masses, to anesthetize the population with promises, pay raises, subsidies and government reshuffling. He spoke of preserving his dignity, but that is exactly what the crowds in the street were fighting for, but for themselves.

During his tenure, Egypt’s population doubled, to more than 80 million. Life grew harder as the social contract between the state and citizens broke down. Satellite television and the Internet meant the state could no longer control what people knew, and so its narrative was often ignored or even mocked.

The gap between rich and poor became greater, and politics became less ideological and more about common demands: for freedom, democracy, social justice, rule of law and economic equality. Mr. Mubarak’s government struggled to prevent people’s economic dissatisfaction from becoming political, but in the end, that failed, too. As he feared, the Egyptian people blamed the entire system.

But perhaps most of all, Mr. Mubarak’s concept of stability — one that was embraced by Washington — in the end proved the ultimate destabilizer, experts in Egypt said. Facing a police state that choked off competing ideas and ideologies, preventing free elections and manipulating the state media, the public found the only way to achieve its goals was on the streets, occupying the symbolic heart of the nation, Tahrir Square, and refusing to go home.

Mr. Mubarak leaves office now with the country’s future more uncertain than at any time since assassins killed President Anwar el-Sadat, elevating Mr. Mubarak to the presidency.

“The idea of integration did not exist in Egypt under Mubarak,” said Amr El-Shobaki, a political analyst at the state-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, in an interview before the crisis. “When they see the opposition, they only think, ‘How do we eliminate them?’ We have a lot of issues in society, political and social, and we don’t have any legal body to express these demands or needs. This is our crisis.”

The people found a way, organized by social media and old-fashioned political mobilization, united by anger and hope.

If stability was to be the hallmark of his reign, that very goal proved to be at least part of his undoing. Stability to many Egyptians came to mean stagnation, as the economy grew and so did the number of people living in poverty. Where once the rich, poor and middle class lived in the same neighborhoods, the wealthy later retreated to walled compounds of grass yards and swimming pools, while Mr. Mubarak’s government struggled even to keep the streets clean of trash.

Nearly every step he took in his quest to preserve the status quo ended up diminishing the standing of the nation as a whole — a blow to a nation that once saw itself as the center of civilization and the Arab world, many political analysts and social commentators said.

Egyptians were shocked when their country did not receive even one vote to host the World Cup soccer tournament in 2000, and then were shocked again this year when Qatar, the tiny oil-and-gas-rich Persian Gulf nation, succeeded in winning the right to host the event in 2022.

“He used the security forces, every political device, and ‘crony capitalism’ to realize his ends, sacrificing the dynamism, autonomy and capabilities of Egyptians, particularly young people,” said Diane Singerman, a professor at American University and an expert on contemporary Egypt.

Mr. Mubarak was initially seen as the perfect antidote to what ailed his nation. He came to power in 1981, when Mr. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals in the military. Mr. Mubarak, sitting next to him, was seared by the experience and pledged to assure security.

He came to power when Egypt was hugely in debt and unsure whether it could pay its bills. It was still ostracized by its Arab neighbors for making peace with Israel.

Mr. Mubarak’s role was to bring calm, stability and unity to his nation, and at first, he did. He was a taciturn military officer, offering a welcome contrast to his two predecessors, charismatic leaders who marked their place in history for bold if not always successful ideas. President Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted pan-Arabism, and Mr. Sadat made peace with Israel, a peace many Egyptians never fully accepted.

“This guy came to power and he kept the country together,” Abdel Moneim Said, the chairman of Al Ahram Newspaper and Publishing, said in an interview before the uprising. Mr. Mubarak also presented himself as a humble leader, tapped by fate to lead his nation. He was a former athlete, a squash player, a former military man and commander of the air force who, analysts and peers said, believed that long hours and hard work equaled good leadership.

He publicly rejected nepotism, though in later years he would maneuver to have his son succeed him. He publicly shunned corruption, although Egyptians became convinced that the powerful enriched themselves at the public’s expense.

His early successes were substantial, especially in the realm of foreign policy. He helped to bring Egypt back into the Arab fold, but also managed to serve as a strong voice for peace between Arab nations and Israel. In the mid-1990s, he was instrumental in helping to forge the agreements with Israel and the P.L.O. that were intended to foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Mubarak oversaw substantial improvements in Egypt’s infrastructure and helped, initially, to reschedule debt and stabilize the economy. He was also a friend of Washington, which gave annual military and economic aid of as much as $2 billion. In 1991, he helped to organize the coalition of Arab armies that agreed to join the United States in the first Persian Gulf war to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Even during the years when Mr. Mubarak was unhappy with President George W. Bush for talking about human rights and democracy in Egypt, he was seen as an ally willing to help with many issues, including the effort to thwart Iran’s growing regional influence and to try to contain the militant group Hamas, which had seized control of the Gaza Strip. Egypt was a partner in carrying out the widely criticized policy of rendition, in which terrorism suspects were flown to third countries for harsh interrogation, even torture.

“He kept close to the United States, but independent of it,” said Mr. Said, who was a member of Mr. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. On the day before the Jan. 25 protest that ultimately pushed Mr. Mubarak out of office, Mr. Said said he thought such an outcome was out of the question.

But Mr. Mubarak’s approach never seemed to change with the times, experts said, and he ultimately became viewed as an isolated autocrat, who allowed, or promoted, corruption and cronyism. He preserved an emergency law that allowed the police to arrest without cause, restricted the right to assembly, and set up a military court.

The public anger grew, visible to many — but not to the president or his circle.

“The government does what it wants and they think nobody can do anything about it,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a social commentator, speaking before the uprising began. “But there is a difference between people swallowing this and the anger accumulating in the people. Civil society institutions are in a state of collapse and are extremely weakened. But the people are there and they are angry.”

Mr. Mubarak’s political organization, the ruling National Democratic Party, was less a party than a collection of interests. It grew to be widely despised, and during the recent tumult in the street the protesters set its headquarters on fire.

“If he left in 1993, he would have been a great president for sure,” said Mr. Shobaki of the Ahram Center. “If he left in the ’90s, it’s average. And starting in 2000, we start the real decline.”

Mr. Mubarak appointed a cabinet to put in place economic improvements, and made some cosmetic political changes. The first three times he ran for re-election, he ran unopposed, in what were called referendums. The fourth time, he allowed opposition
candidates, but won with millions of votes and suspicions of electoral manipulation. The nearest challenger, Ayman Nour, got about 600,000 votes, and was later jailed on what were widely seen as politically motivated charges.

During his three decades in power, Mr. Mubarak, his allies and his party never managed to define an idea for Egyptians to believe in. “The excesses of free markets without freedoms, the increased economic inequality in Egypt and crass inattention and suspicion of the needs and aspirations of the majority of Egyptians, finally rose up to pierce the monarchical, securitized state that he and his supporters had built,” said Mrs. Singerman, the American University professor.

During his tenure, Egyptians never lost their well-known sense of humor and their zest for satire. And it was not long after he took office that his hallmark, stability, was already mocked not as a legacy, but as a punch line.

The joke from the late 1980s went like this: Mr. Mubarak’s driver came to a fork in the road. He asked his driver which way President Nasser went and the response was, “Always left.” He asked about
President Sadat and the answer was, “Always right.”

“Signal left, then right, and park,” Mr. Mubarak told his driver.

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