x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A 'let them eat cake' moment hastened Mubarak's end

Hosni Mubarak's ill-advised speech to an angry Egyptian nation was the final act of his 30-year reign.

Freedom. Defiance. Heroes. These words are too often overused and over time they have started to lose their power. But never have they echoed with more force than in the 24 hours that preceded Hosni Mubarak's fall.

On Thursday afternoon, news broke that the Egyptian army would make a statement that, for all intents and purposes, would announce the end of Mr Mubarak's 30-year rule, and bring about the change demanded by millions of Egyptian protesters. The army's statement, when it came, was ambiguous but still speculation continued that Mr Mubarak would finally bow to the will of the nation.

Wael Ghonim, one of the architects of this revolution, tweeted: "Mission Accomplished". Twitter and Facebook were inundated with messages claiming victory. The writing, so to speak, was on the wall.

But those celebrating Mr Mubarak's demise had not taken into account his incredible stubbornness. As his much-delayed address approached, the feeling grew that something was not right, and leaks indicated that he would not step down, but he might lift the country's state of emergency. His speech did not even deliver on that.

For 17 minutes, the president lectured his countrymen, apparently in a state of astonishing self-delusion. So divorced from reality were his words that any hope of him departing with dignity rapidly evaporated in front of the watching world. The anger in Egypt, among Arab analysts, on internet forums and on the street was palpable.

It is hard to comprehend what Mr Mubarak, his aides and the poor speechwriters were hoping to achieve with such a rambling address. After a token acknowledgment of the 300 casualties of the previous weeks, he proceeded to crow about his achievements while back in Tahrir Square the mood simmered.

Nine minutes in, the trickle of dissenting voices grew into a flood of anger, with many raising their shoes in the air. As Al Jazeera's split-screen broadcast juxtaposed Mr Mubarak's increasingly meaningless words with the incredible scenes in Tahrir, it became obvious just how out of touch with the Egyptian street the president had become. It was Mr Mubarak's "let them eat cake" moment.

But the crowds were not biting. Defiant chants of "Irhal, irhal" ("Leave, leave") filled Cairo's cold night air. To rub salt into the wounds, Vice President Omar Suleiman followed with a speech of his own. By that point, no one was listening.

After the late afternoon optimism, the night ended in crushing disappointment. But Egypt, and the world, did not have to wait long.

It quickly became clear that Mr Mubarak and Mr Suleiman had hugely underestimated the will of the people who, after 17 days of protests, were desperately close to real freedom. If the demonstrators needed words of encouragement to raise their flagging spirits, they got them from those ill-advised speeches. There was no turning back.

The next day brought renewed resolve. By the end of Friday's prayers, the crowds swelled and thousands marched on the presidential palace. Checkmate.

When the end came, it was swift. Mr Suleiman announced that Mr Mubarak would hand over control to a military council and leave Cairo for his residence in Sharm el Sheikh.

The revolution had prevailed and, in the end, was televised after all. For Berlin 1989, read Cairo 2011.

The scene in Tahrir Square was like New Year's Eve, winning the World Cup and Woodstock rolled into one. The red, white and black of the Egyptian flag waved proudly.

A sign reading "Shift+Delete and Enter=System Down, Mubarak" encapsulated the modern, tech-savvy nature of Egypt's young revolutionaries. Soldiers, too, could finally celebrate with their countrymen.

It is too early to know what the future holds for Egypt, but today it stands proud again, a beacon of hope for disenfranchised people all over the world.

On Thursday, someone had asked on Twitter: "Who in the world would not want to be in Tahrir Square tonight?" And he was right. For 18 days, the world was captivated by a revolution that steadfastly stayed faithful to its peaceful ideals, at times in the face of extreme provocation.

On Friday, Egypt emerged from its ordeal a nation of heroes in the truest sense of the word.