Mubarak is gone, but Mubarakans still rule
The public humiliation of the former president is an attempt to show the New Egypt as free and over its past. But it isn’t.
How the mighty have fallen. Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for nearly 30 years, was yesterday carried into a Cairo courtroom on a stretcher, pleading not guilty to charges of corruption and unlawful killing through a metal cage.
For Egyptians, it must be a momentous moment, watching the humiliation of someone who had dominated their lives and denied them freedom for decades. There must have been an overwhelming feeling of schadenfreude at the bringing low of this hated figure. But any pleasure will no doubt be tinged with sadness, not only for those who have died in the protests against Egypt’s leaders but with the knowledge that little, fundamentally, has changed.
The uprisings earlier this year – first in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria – were clearly an enormous shock both to the Arab elites and to Western leaders. Tunisia’s leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia in January after 23 years in power. This emboldened others to attempt to topple other long-standing leaders, leading to the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the eventual resignation of Mubarak in February.
However, the success of the Egyptian uprising was only in part down to the pressure from people on the streets. In reality, while there was demand for change, there was little in the way of political vision from the protesters beyond a general demand for more freedom and a greater say in the country’s affairs. Crucially, the army stayed neutral, reflecting confusion within the Egyptian elite about what to do. But when Mubarak resigned (or, more probably, was pushed), power passed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In other words, what happened in Egypt was far more like a palace coup than a ‘revolution’, as many excitable people were calling it at the time. It would never have happened without the protests, it’s true, and the desire of people for political change – and their bravery in standing up for it – was certainly inspiring. But in the absence of clear political leadership, Egypt’s elite was able to fob off protesters with promises of a new constitution, the end of emergency powers and fresh elections.
A referendum on a new constitution was passed in March, but beyond limiting the powers of any newly elected president, little has changed. As critics have pointed out, the outcome is likely to consolidate the power of existing parties rather than opening up the possibility of wider change. The result has been that protesters have continued to occupy Tahrir Square until riot police were brought in to clear the square earlier this week.
Nonetheless, with considerable dissent still in evidence, the Egyptian military needs to be able to show that things really have changed. So putting Hosni Mubarak on trial, along with his sons and other officials, is perfect. It is both dramatic and yet unthreatening. Throwing the old face of the regime to the lions allows the rest of Egypt’s rulers to carry on pretty much as before.
This situation has been reinforced by the very idea of an ‘Egyptian revolution’ that has been widely accepted in the West. Getting rid of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt may have made for good television and fevered discussion about a new era in the Arab World, but merely getting rid of figureheads doesn’t necessarily mean very much. Of course, rulers across the region who complacently thought their position was unquestionable will never feel so secure again, while the on-going battles in Syria show that the desire for greater freedom has by no means petered out.
What the obsession with overthrowing some ageing dictators has done, however, is create the impression of ‘job done’. The message from the West has been ‘go home and calm down’, allowing the moment to push things further, to achieve greater freedom, to be lost. Admittedly, many of those who got overwrought about the Arab uprisings spent most of the time onanistically wondering what these new movements meant for them. That brief rush of excitement over with, the ‘Twitter revolutionaries’ rather lost interest. But to the extent that the outside world has had an influence on proceedings, the suggestion that getting rid of a few pensioners in palaces should be the limit of expectations can only have a conservative impact on the uprisings.
No doubt Mubarak and his fellow accused can expect months in the dock now followed by some kind of exemplary punishment (if the ailing Mubarak even survives the process). But the prospects for the genuine extension of freedom in Egypt will depend on the willingness of the people to see past this charade and demand something better.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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