x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How Hosni Mubarak unlocked the power of the Egyptian people

Power changed Hosni Mubarak from 'the laughing cow' to a leader loathed by millions. He must now live out his remaining days with the knowledge that the system and society he helped build caused millions of his people to eventually topple him. Yet for a few he still inspires sympathy.

CAIRO // Hosni Mubarak's abrupt fall from grace is both shocking and humbling. Pushed out of office by his own people after a 29-year run in power, Mr Mubarak must now live out his remaining days with the knowledge that the system and society he helped build caused millions of his people to eventually topple him.

Mr Mubarak's ultimate political legacy will be debated for decades. But in the short term he will most likely be remembered as a leader who tried to sincerely guard what he perceived as Egypt's interests in terms of foreign policy, but whose domestic record grew increasingly difficult to defend.

It is notable that over the 18 days of protests, almost no one among the protesters talked about Camp David, or Mr Mubarak's relationship with Israel and the United States. Mr Mubarak lost his own people over his policies at home.

Taking office after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Mr Mubarak was at first regarded as a political lightweight - a handsome war hero who was never meant to hold real authority. For the first decade or so of his rule, Mr Mubarak's street nickname was "La vache qui rit", or "laughing cow" - taken from the name of a popular French brand of cheese.

But as he gradually entrenched and consolidated his power base, those references gave way to less humorous monikers. His proteges in the interior ministry helped intimidate the people into largely helpless submission. He managed to keep the Muslim Brotherhood under wraps through constant crackdowns, while at the same time using the threat of a Brotherhood takeover to convince both his own citizens and western governments that his rule was the only acceptable alternative. He ensured that no credible moderate opposition figures emerged to spoil the stark black-and-white choice between his government and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

His final public action will be remembered as one of his most awkward moments - a completely tone-deaf televised speech on Thursday night in which he hailed his own achievements and legacy of service, launched a cranky diatribe against the always convenient shadowy "foreign influences" and demonstrated clearly to the Tahrir Square demonstrators that he was not listening. He lasted less than a day after that.

Mr Mubarak still remains for many Egyptians, even for some who are happy to see him go, a sympathetic but flawed father figure. But it is impossible to deny that his rule had a corrosive effect on the Egyptian psyche.

Egypt under Mr Mubarak, particularly in the past 15 years, became a meaner place. Rule of law was often missing. The causes were economic desperation and the vivid daily reminders that there was one set of rules for most and a completely different set for a select few.

The result was a dramatic erosion of the trademark Egyptian sense of community. The issue of right or wrong became secondary to all-important wasta. Uncounted thousands of educated Egyptians fled overseas, where they often thrived and prospered in ways that they could not in Mr Mubarak's Egypt.

Mr Mubarak also presided over the virtual collapse of Egyptians' sense of public empowerment and political engagement. Successive generations have been raised with the belief that the system was indeed rotten to the core, but that there was nothing anyone could do about it. Anyone who tried to change that dynamic was regarded as Quixotic.

But if the first 29 years of the Mubarak era helped kill Egyptian self-confidence and sense of their own political empowerment, his final 18 days in power witnessed a dramatic resurgence of both. When the protesters took control of Tahrir Square, something was unleashed. Reservoirs of confidence, creativity and empowerment emerged which some feared had been lost forever.

Something fundamental has changed in the Egyptian people. They have awakened, and whatever transitional entity emerges in the post-Mubarak era will be wise to heed the will of the people a lot more closely than Mr Mubarak did.