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Mubarak: The odyssey of the last Pharaoh

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By Hugo Odiogor

Embattled Hosni Mubarak belongs to the class of leaders who believes that they “can fool all the people, all of the time.” So, having fooled some of his country men and women, for 31 years, the last Pharaoh, last week, tried to “fool all of the people of Egypt all of the time,” which is exactly what he did successfully for three decades.

Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square today. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/EPA

The stunt this time is that, at 82, and ailing, he will graciously excuse himself from further leadership contest and allow other men, most of whom he had forced into old age, to contest and take over from him in September.

For a man who has ruled Egypt as “sole administrator” in the past three decades, excluding the years he served as vice- president to the late President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak, according to Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria’s former External Affairs Minister, simply had an “exaggerated view of his political relevance in modern Egypt.”

Looking preen and spritely, Mubarak did not display stress or anxiety, he did not show traces of poor health as he told his listeners on globally televised short message that he has served his country well and will not be disgraced out of power. He said, like the other stubborn Pharaohs before him, that he was ready to die rather than contemplate going into exile. Mubarak pledged to push for constitutional reforms that limit the tenure of the president.

Granted that he has served his country well as a soldier and as a politician, Mubarak failed to appreciate that he has hit the rock bottom on the diminishing returns curve and, as economists would say, his marginal utility now  is zero.

Although the protesters had given their ailing president a tough time since January 25, 2011, the protests have been substantially peaceful  but the determined push by over 500,000 people to occupy Tahrir, or Liberation  Square on Wednesday, in defiance of the  government shutdown of the transport and communication system led to clashes between the pro and anti-Mubarak groups.

The clashes came as foreigners rushed to leave Egypt with over 18,000 people scrambling to depart through the overcrowded Cairo’s international airport.

Opponents game-plan

The protest in Egypt has thrown up different groups with conflicting agenda, with the opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood scheming to take over the reins of power. According to Akinyemi, “the most significant fact is that the Egyptians are united in their resolves first as Arabs, with one culture, one language,  both the small Christians and Muslim population, are struggling against bad government that has lost  touch with the realities of modern Egyptian state.

’‘This is contrary to the madness we are seeing in Jos and other parts of Nigeria where the people are so ethnically-divided that they cannot pull together to challenge the leaders to abide by the social contract between them and the people.”

The Muslim Brotherhood would want to form an Islamic state but the secular- minded Egyptians are more in number and are deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood movement.

The opposition groups have turned down Mubarak’s proposal for dialogue by the government of Omar Suleiman. Political watchers believe the dialogue proposal  is an attempt to buy time as Mubarak still wants to remain relevant in the country’s polity.

The themes that have ran through the Egyptian protests are corruption, unemployment, poor infrastructure, under funding of education, low wages, lack of opportunities and abuse of power by authorities.

Mubarak’s failure to design a credible succession is also at the heart of the protests as Egyptians seem to be saying no to his plan to impose his son, Gamal, who is 42 and may be in office for the next 40 years or more.

When Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser displaced the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, in a military coup, he created a secular and socialist government and used military power as the stabilising and progressive force. On Nasser’s death, Sadat replaced him. On Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak replaced him. Sadat and Mubarak came from the military constituency as Nasser.

The demand  for Mubarak’s resignation has come from many quarters, including the military, which disliked Mubarak’s succession plan which,  they believe, will undermine the influence of the military since Gamal is not one of their own.

The military, which has supported Mubarak over the years,  saw the protest as an opportunity to reassert its power, though it is  equally being  mindful of the fact  that the demonstrations might get out of hand and destroy the regime. The military believes  that the demonstrations might  force Mubarak to resign and allow a replacement with a man from their constituency.

This happened when Mubarak appointed Suleiman, the former head of intelligence, as vice-president, a position he shut down for 30 years as he became a “sole administrator.”

Geopolitical dynamics

Egypt is regarded as the centre of gravity in the Arab world because it holds the balance of power in the region.  For the United States, Egypt is a strategic ally in  the effort to promote peace and liberal democracy in the Middle-East. It provides a military base to enable US play definitive role in the region, especially  as the guarantor of the Camp David Peace Accord with Israel.

This accord has led to the demilitarisation of the Sinai Peninsula and reduced the threat to Israel on the southern front.
Without Egypt, no Arab country can build a military coalition that can attack Israel as we saw in the Yom Kippour war in 1973.

There is now a potential threat from  nuclear-threatening Iran.  A shift in the balance of power in the Middle East will have a serious geopolitical implication for countries within and outside the region. For instance, it must be recalled that Nigeria was drawn into the Arab politics in 1973 when the African countries boycotted relations with the Jewish state in solidarity with an Arab and African country that was at war with Israel. This was a move that redefined socio-religious relations in Nigeria.

When Sadat decided to reverse his alliance with the Soviets and form an alliance with the United States, it strengthened the United States and immeasurably undermined the Soviets’  position in the Mediterranean and in the Arab world. The support of Egyptian intelligence after the terror attacks  in September 2001 was critical in blocking and undermining al Qaeda. The Suez Canal, controlled by Egypt, is the gateway of Middle-East oil into the West.

In the event of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining leverage in the political development in the years ahead, Israel may be the greater loser as its national security has rested on its treaty with Egypt. Any attempt to abrogate the Camp David Peace Accord  will pose serious threat to Israel. International political analysts contend that the three wars Israel fought in1948, 1967 and 1973,  to secure its very existence and the threat was always from Egypt.

The other wars fought after its treaty with Egypt  namely, the 1982 and 2006 wars in Lebanon, the issues were not Israeli’s existence and survival, but containing  terrorist security threats, hence the U.S watched from the sidelines and, when Saddam Hussein tried the chicken noodle approach in the first Gulf War in 1991, the US sent Patriot missiles to defend Israel and persuaded it to stay away from the conflict to avoid hurting its Arab partners in the coalition,  notably Egypt and Turkey.

Among radical Islamists, the prospect of a radicalised Egypt represents a new lease of life as it could give Iran, the desired ally, the power  to confront the West as Iran is now the emerging centre of radical Islamism. This outcome would be less pleasing to the U.S and Israel.

It will not be a welcome development for Egypt to be in competition of influence with Teheran. Consequently, there seems to be a conscious attempt to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not hijack the protest and impose the Iranian system of leadership.
The response of US President Barack Obama was timid and non-committal as Washington was reluctant to publicly dump an ally who is in trouble; at the same time, it was posturing to be on the side of the people, a dangerous double-game which did not fool the Egyptians in any way. Egypt is a major recipient of the  U.S. military and economic aids for its stabilising role in the geopolitical equation in the Middle-East.

The impact of social media

The gale of social change in Egypt and the Arab world, according to Akinyemi, “is a phenomenon that nobody expected as the self immolation protest by a frustrated Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia was neglected and treated as an insignificant incident in Tunisia but it was posted to the internet for the whole world to see. This was the spark to the situation in the Arab world as we confront the realities of the internet age. What started in Tunisia as people  protest against corruption, government insensitivity and autocratic leadership has rocked the Arab world, leaving Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Oman on edge.

The government of Egypt tried to block internet access as young internet activists used social media networks as You Tubes, Facebook, Twitter to bloc messages and distribute video materials on the crisis. Millions of e-mail messages were dispatched to homes and offices of people, without regards to possible invasion of privacy.

The first allusion to the role of information technology came from officials of the deposed Tunisian government when they  blamed WikiLeaks for blowing whistle on the affluence of the family of former President Ben Ali. The massive corruption and abuse of power in the 23-year-old presidency of Ben Ali had gone unnoticed and unchallenged because of the secrecy surrounding most of the deals involving family members of the deposed president.

The protest to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of on-line activists and fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime. The repercussions were being felt around the Mideast, as other authoritarian governments,  fearing popular discontent,  tried to burnish their democratic image. Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government to form a new cabinet and ordered it  to launch political reforms.

While the IMF attribute the ongoing crisis to the global economic imbalances, a research fellow with the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA),  Dr. Charles,  told Sunday Vanguard that “the truth remains that the countries in the Arab world are reacting to the autocratic regimes that have over the years suppressed the desires of the people for freedom”. He said the unrest in Yemen, Algeria, Mauritania, among others, are more politically motivated, although the economic undertone cannot be ruled out.

‘’The fact remains that the political leadership in Nigeria still regards  the development in the Arab world as far removed from Nigeria, whereas the objective conditions that have precipitated the crisis are endemic here. We cannot feel insulated from the issues that have led to the quest for social change in Egypt; we are talking of corruption, denial of opportunities, the failure of the state to provide jobs, the insensitivity of public office holders, widening gap of inequality and poverty, these are the issues that Nigerians are grappling with today.”

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