Monday 15 August 2011

The Mubarak Trial: Why Many Egyptians Cried

Note: This post was written on August 3rd, after the first Mubarak trial session, but delayed due to editorial reasons. This post tries to analyse "the complexity of what many Egyptians saw and felt as they looked at Mubarak and his sons during the trial" leading many to shed tears for various reasons, and is not an attempt to defend or lighten Mubarak's image. A companion post is also recommended: Mubarak - A Life In Pictures...

Mubarak supporters outside the trial

On the early morning of August 3rd, pro and anti Mubarak mini rallies exchanged rocks in front of the Police Academy in Cairo where the trial of the former president was scheduled to take place. The atmosphere was intense, to say the least. And when the plane carrying the 83-year-old former leader finally arrived, reactions varied immensely, as the anti Mubarak crowd cheered like never before, while the loyalists sunk into visible anger and despair. Inside the courtroom, an auditorium in the academy turned hastily into the trial venue, to describe the sounds as "noisy" would have been an understatement, but then came that moment, one where "silence" was also an understatement.
The former president was ushered in with his two sons, who bore Qurans with them, into the cage designed to house the accused, the father being wheeled as he lay on a hospital bed. Despite the hair dye, shaven beard and the sleek wristwatch, the man looked wearier than many of us decided to admit, or so he did to me at least. The camera approached the caged men, and it zoomed on Mubarak's face, and suddenly he looked straight back into it, with a very odd look on his face, a mixture of defiance, regret, reprimand, anger, sadness, pain, denial and surrender. Everyone in Egypt, perhaps in the region and elsewhere as well, momentarily lost the ability to speak. The fact is, everyone was shocked beyond words. Many cried, and cried profusely; grown men and women broke down in an emotional outburst. And among those who cried were people who truly believed that Mubarak had to stand trial like anyone else accused of a crime, some even convinced of his guilt, and yet those men and women were shaken to their core when he looked straight back into that camera, as if he was looking directly to each of them. But what baffled many non-Egyptians was why, setting aside those who shed tears of joy, many were crying at the sight of the caged dictator.

The trial

Previously unimaginable images of Mubarak, taken during his trial

The fact is that ever since the first unified Egyptian state thousands of years ago, Egyptians have been accustomed to a singular patriarchal and dominant figure as the fatherly leader. During Pharaonic times that leader was even worshipped as a God, in line with many cultures of the time. And as time progressed, while many nations have experimented with various forms of government, Egyptians retained their dominant singular leader system, and those leaders went to great lengths to ensure their dominance remained intact, creating and perpetuating myths about themselves and surrounding themselves with an aura of quasi-sacredness and untouchability. If that failed, weapons could always be used. It thus doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Mubarak was often referred to as a modern day Pharaoh, whether pejoratively or quite honestly.

Mubarak becomes Vice President

Every era in Egyptian history, we studied in school, has been tied to the name of the leader at the helm of the nation at the time, whether it was Ramses II, Amr Ibn Al Aas,, Muhammad Ali, King Farouk, Nasser, Sadat, and of course Mubarak. And even as leaders became no longer demi-Gods in belief, they were still so in practice. Ahmose is glorified as the liberator of Egypt from the Hyksos invaders, Nasser was adulated by crowds all over the Arab world as a hero and "father" to the Arab nation, and Sadat, to this day, has die-hard fans in Egypt who remain mesmerized by his oratorical skills and popular accounts of what are deemed to be his achievements (including his successes as a statesman and leader of the Egyptian Army in the 1973 war). Similarly, Muhammad Ali & Khedive Ismail are glorified as the bearers of modernity to Egypt, just to give further examples. And given that, on a large scale, the clear majority of Egyptians are almost uniformly centrist pan-Arab and pan-Islamic in orientation, ideological debates were hardly a defining element in the reading of our modern history, with periods of exception. The differences were rather in the ruling style and philosophy of each leader. For example, ideological changes were often enforced top down, with Nasser almost singlehandedly bringing Socialism to Egypt, and Sadat’s pushing the country closer to laissez-faire also almost entirely out of his own conviction and understanding of the world, both of which further highlight the influence of the head of state in Egypt. And in war and peace, it was the leaders who basked in the glory of victory or bore responsibility for defeat. It could be said that applies to all nations, and it probably does. However, in Egypt, the direct influence of the leader is so profoundly felt by all levels of society in a manner that is very hard to describe or compare. In Egypt, a leader means so much more than head of state.

With Sadat

When Mubarak was appointed as Sadat’s vice president, some people satirized him as La Vache Qui Rit, a popular French brand of cheese, whose name means "the laughing cow", an allusion to his apparent continuous cheerful grin. But when Sadat was shockingly assassinated during the celebration of Egypt’s greatest military success in modern history, the grief-stricken nation turned to his vice president for guidance, solace and leadership, and Mubarak rose to the task. However, no one saw him as a visionary, mainly because he had lived in Sadat's shadow for years, while also because he didn't really have a vision. Mubarak's entire political philosophy was about stability, mediation rather than taking sides, hoping perhaps to be remembered as a Metternich of sorts. His economic policy was no different, keeping the country moving through a pastiche of socialist and neoliberal policies that baffled people who failingly tried to place him on the political spectrum. Former advisors coming out of hiding spoke on television in frustration with their attempts to commit the former president to sweeping long term plans of growth and development, stating his preference to just move "step-by-step", to be reactionary rather than proactive.

But life was reasonably good during the first ten years of Mubarak’s rule. He quickly worked on creating and solidifying an image as a hero of the 1973 war and built his personal narrative around that. He pardoned prisoners, brought Egypt back to the leadership of the Arab League, and kept the country out of war with Israel (a major concern at the time, though he did participate in the Gulf War). When Jihadists undertook a series of terrorist attacks targeting tourists, Mubarak was swift in a way that many Egyptians (still shaken by Sadat’s death) liked, with a draconian jailing campaign that eventually subjected 30,000 people to imprisonment. And during those first ten years, the economy was not exactly a success story and yet not also a story of failure either: the Egyptian currency was stable, and a private sector was still experiencing a transformation following the gradual liberalization policies of Sadat that Mubarak continued. 
Mubarak Becomes President

At the time, there wasn't any real opposition or political challenge to Mubarak’s rule, even while taking into account his regime’s repression against political competitors. However, such repression was often welcomed by many within public; for example, repression against the Muslim Brotherhood was accepted by many Egyptians fearing expected violence and extremist politics by the outlawed group, a fear reignited by the surge of the Salafi movement in Egypt these days. Within those ten years, Egypt was back at the head of the Arab world, with a decently performing economy, and a stable & secure interior. This president was not Nasser or Sadat in charisma, but he was a "wise & a seemingly and amiable respectful statesman." If one had observed many of the other leaders sharing the Arab Summit round tables with Mubarak, we would have thought he was the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  And of course, surviving the 1995 assassination attempt at Addis Ababa only rallied the nation to his support even further. This was not an assassination attempt against “Hosni Mubarak” the man, but against “the president of Egypt”, the symbol of the Egyptian people.

On a daily level for 30 years, in all major newspapers and government television, Egyptians were continuously flooded with the images of an apparently amiable President personally inspecting businesses and governmental projects, talking to employees and motivating them in what seemed to be a humble non-assuming manner, and appearing to be regularly starting to new projects at a prolific rate.

Mubarak's car post assassination attempt

This was destined to be the "Mubarak Era" in the history books, it was decided, and interestingly he had announced he was planning not to stay "more than two terms" (insert generic cringe here). And indeed, everything in Egypt save for the country itself was named after Mubarak, and schoolbooks even partially succeeded in brainwashing new generations with the official narrative of a calm and certain leader who overflows with achievements for his country. They didn't necessarily believe the story as presented, and were highly suspicious of it for the most part, but there was no place they could safely get an alternative history. This was all the history they knew, and Mubarak did a least seem like a likeable man.

Then allegedly, the once more positive Mubarak changed. Those who knew him claim he became "more confident, arrogant, supposedly stopped reading briefings" (at least in full), believed that "the country would fall apart without him", and that he had a genuine duty to "bear the hardships of leadership for his country", at any cost. At the same time, the world changed. There was no longer a second superpower, China was beginning to emerge with cheap products that threatened local manufacturing all around the world, free trade was becoming the norm, and the dynamics of power and trade were being redrawn. Mubarak remained reactionary, and his regime became more repressive than ever. Underneath him, a web of power groups, state and non-state actors that are capable of much on their own without recourse to him, emerged. They too wanted to keep the regime, and thus themselves, intact. And with the arrival of Gamal Mubarak into the picture, whom many Egyptians were willing to consider at one point as his father's legitimate heir, things only got worse. People believed Mubarak gave up the running of the country to his son and his cronies, with famous and powerful names from the private sector began to infiltrate the seats of power, directly and indirectly, mostly through Gamal and his entourage. Urban legends of corruption became the talk of the town, many of which were not myths at all. The country was ostensibly being run by an oligarchy of influential rich individuals, literally buying the country as they went along (the name of Hussein Salem is course no stranger to this discussion).

A Newsweek cover that both describes Gamal Mubarak in bold red as "The Future of Egypt", while ironically (in hindsight) also says: "forget Iraq. The key to change in the Middle East is Cairo."

Then the 2005 presidential elections came. While it was a golden opportunity for Mubarak to retire as a respected statesman, he contested the race nevertheless, and there is no doubt that a majority of Egyptians voted for him more than willingly, mostly due to the lack of popularity of the other contestants (one candidate even said he was going to cast his vote to Mubarak, not to himself!) Many just lived with the belief that no one else was ready to lead Egypt, admittedly & ironically due to the Mubarak regime’s chokehold on Egyptian Politics, and that Mubarak was essential for a while longer. And since the 2003 Iraq war, the country has been opening up (though hardly with the regime's blessing), with more free media than before, and a more vibrant political scene, with the majority of Egypt's largely conservative population seeing these reforms as enough for their time. In fact, as the media became more emboldened against Mubarak to the point of ad hominem attacks, Egyptians often cursed journalists who used foul language against the president in their shows or newspaper. "You can criticize him [Mubarak], but you cannot insult the leader and symbol of our nation", was the statement used overwhelmingly against the likes of Ibrahim Eissa (imprisoned for a while by the regime, then pardoned theatrically by Mubarak a short while later). 

A new image of Mubarak is presented in his 2005 Election Campaign. He is suit-less, familiar, yet calm & reassuring.
By then however, especially after the death of his grandson and the outpour of sympathy it triggered, as well as his health crisis (first sign: Mubarak collapsed in 2003 while giving a speech in Parliament) and the images of an old frail grandfatherly Mubarak in pajamas in the hospital following what he announced (to disbelieving audiences) was a gallbladder operation, the president was no longer viewed in the same manner by his people. Mubarak was almost unanimously regarded more as a constitutional monarch than as a president with regards to all interior matters. In fact, in many ways, the Mubaraks were Egypt's Royal Family, one Egyptians liked to gossip and speculate about. Real power lay, in the public's eyes, in the government itself which was de facto by Mubarak's two sons and wife, particularly Gamal, who was now becoming loathed as a corrupt & arrogant elitist, rather than admired as a model for youth as he once were. Once more, had Mubarak announced before the end of his most recent term that he was no longer running for office, he would have had another chance at a historic hero's exit. But he remained silent and ambiguous on the matter, fueling speculation that his son was about to officially step into the game, or worse: that the 80+ year old leader was running again, defying logic and the laws of nature.

But a startling phenomenon was that in spite everything that was happening, whether it was the stories of torture, socio-economic hardships, corruption, decline in political power, most of it was often ascribed not to the reigning patriarch, the supposed symbol of stability. On a personal level he remained seen a "kind and good man", many would say, turning more into hope as years passed by. "It's Gamal", many would quip. "Mubarak does not know. They hide things from him", many would add. "It's Al-Adly", referring to the iron fisted former Interior Minister, on trial now for protester deaths during the revolution. "If he Mubarak was only to be informed of what was truly happening, he would change things", many would say. And this notion of an unknowing yet benevolent Mubarak was quite widespread, with many films presenting this image indirectly, like "Marriage With A Presidential Decree" (Gawaz Bi Qarar Gumhouri), or bluntly. A film made a few years ago, called "The President's Cook" (Tabbakh Al Ra'is) played on this reputation, presented a fictional idealistic Egyptian President who just knew nothing about how bad things were. In one scene, the President manages to defiantly get out of the palace alone to walk in the streets to talk to the people on a personal fact finding mission, but his corrupt entourage spread the word that there are harmful UV rays, that everyone should stay indoors and not open their windows, leaving the president to walk literally alone in Cairo streets, finding nothing to do but to call his subordinate and ask: "where did you send all the people!?" 

Mubarak, Suzanne and his late grandson (Above) in one of two well publicised pictures following his tragic passing away, and the father and the uncle (below) carrying the coffin. Egypt was genuinely moved.

This was how many saw Mubarak. There was a belief that he would have changed so much, only if he really knew what was truly happening, and there are strong parallels with how many saw Ceausescu during the final years of his life. Mubarak often (un)intentionally reinforced these positive ideas about his own persona by playing deus-ex-machina from time to time. For example, in 2006, he personally intervened to support a school student who was intentionally failed in her exams for writing a scathing "foulmouthed" attack on his and other Arab regimes on her exam paper, telling people that she had the right for free expression, but not without moderately reprimanding her for choosing the supposedly wrong venue. He won points by intervening to aid with the medical treatment of people like actor Talaat Zakareyya. His personal decrees for the release of journalist Ibrahim Eissa and his former 2005 presidential elections contender Dr. Ayman Nour from jail, both imprisoned for personal attacks against him (though the official charges were different of course) also reinforced the idea that "there was still some good inside of him", someone said to me back then.

While not all Egyptians were so uniform in their opinions, the biggest exception came from younger people who viewed the outside world that many had not seen. They saw the world as it was, whether in real life through their trips, or virtually via the Internet, and they knew they were being brainwashed by an archaic hegemonic regime that belonged to the Cold War. And all the new and freer media that appeared since the early 2000’s fueled them even further. They were the first generation that managed to step out of years of one-sided propaganda, and they wanted the same liberties and dignity that a citizen in any developed country in the world enjoys. With the median age in Egypt under 30 years indeed, they are now fast becoming the majority, and what happened in Tunisia was the tipping point, the trigger.

Tahrir during the Revolution

When the revolution broke out on January 25th the majority of Egyptians were either perplexed, astounded, suspicious or outright against the demonstrations, and many believed the claims of protesters "being paid, given free meals, speaking in foreign languages", and the rest of the stories we are familiar with (many believe them to same day, and many believed them again regarding the July 8th sit in). Some even were with using all levels of violence to disperse the protesters who "were trying to bring down the stability of our country", many said, while of course inserting the words Israel and America throughout their arguments. The majority of those who demonstrated were not out to bring down Mubarak, but to gain their rights and freedoms. Had the regime not used violence against the protestors only to announce later that Mubarak will not be running again, the former president would have most likely not been caged today. But over the course of the 18 days, Egypt was exposed with greater concentration than possible to the true reality of the Mubarak regime. The Egyptians clearly saw how the media was actively manipulating them, how violent and capable of bloodshed (that they saw first hand on non-governmental television and the internet) the regime truly was, how Machiavellian it genuinely was, how incapable it was of controlling its own limbs (the Battle of the Camel silenced many critics into abstention, while winning over others to the cause of the revolution, showing that either Mubarak was no longer in real control, or that he could truly lie to his own people), and knew that (sadly for some) it was time for this entire regime to fall, regardless of what comes after.

The notorious Battle Of The Camel

A great deal of Egyptians, to this day, do not believe claims that Mubarak ordered the army to fire at the people (Robert Fisk is an advocate of the claim) and they believe, perhaps hope, that the trial would prove the once "respectful statesman, the symbol and father of the nation" to be innocent. In fact, as you probably have read elsewhere, many even didn't want him to be tried given his age and struggle with cancer as well, with a leading actress even citing the legal proceedings as "Haram" (i.e. religiously forbidden - she was ridiculed later on, though not by everyone), but eventually they knew the law would have to take its due course, and hoped that this trial would be the venue for his restoration of dignity. Some even looked at the events in Syria and Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, even Tunisia to some extent, and believed that Mubarak sacrificed himself for the country's stability, or rather that he decided to spare it greater unrest at the expense of his presidency. What about Gamal and Alaa, one asks? "The law can have them, especially Gamal, though it would be nice to see Alaa not get a grave sentence. He just seems like a kind son and a somewhat respectful man, at least compared to Gamal. He just happened to like quite money quite a bit”, many say.

Mubarak makes two fateful speeches, one right before the Battle Of The Camel, and is immensely well received by the general populace. He makes another one late February 10th, which helps usher in his downfall
And so, as Egypt saw Mubarak caged, people cried for many reasons. Some cried in sympathy for a man they genuinely viewed as the (flawed) "father" of the nation, some cried at his perceived humiliation at this age, for his oft touted or alleged previous achievements, for the sight of a once ruling family in tatters, for a man they invested their hopes and aspirations in for so long, for a man they knew as a leader and as a source of security and stability (even if disliked or unloved by some of them) for more than 35 years, for a cancer stricken 83 year old grandfather who lost his grandson, for someone who (compared to other Arab leaders, to be accurate) didn't embarrass Egypt on the international stage, kept the country safe as they believed, and at the sight of a man who could have gone into the history books as a wise leader of his times, had he not continued well indeed beyond them. They were tears over what could have been, and what actually became, the tragedy of a once-possible great man. Some even cried as they subconsciously associated that image with the trial of Saddam and the memories of Arab shocked-pride at the American invasion, though they consciously knew better. They were tears of confusion, tears of disillusionment, personal questioning, tears over how we look at our own history and how much seems even more uncertain than it once was. Some of course simply cried because they knew that the deafening certainty and stability they once saw their world with will no longer exist.

And yet of course, many cried because they knew their rulers would no longer be above them or above the law. They cried because they knew their revolution was succeeding, and that a true chance at democracy was undeniably being born. They cried because the blood of the men and women spilt during the revolution was not lost in vain. They cried because they could taste victory. They cried because they reclaimed the right to rule their own country. They cried because they could feel freedom, egalitarianism, empowerment and a greater sense of belonging than ever before.

And all those who cried, whether in joy, sadness or relief, did so because at the realization or reaffirmation that the country they knew is indeed forever changed, that a massive chapter of their lives has truly been turned. They could only hope it is for the better.

Nevertheless, one thing we can hope for, that perhaps the next era will be named after the achievements of the people, not after the names of their leaders...

Commentary: After receiving much feedback, I felt I needed to expand on one issue which might have been a source of some confusion. This piece is not written with the conviction that all Egyptians are one lot or that they characteristically exalt their leaders, as per some regrettable stereotypes that some hold. There has always been strong opposition, independent movements, and genuinely differing attitudes with regards to national leaders, ranging from adulation to abhorring, as well as with regards to how the country should be like and where it should go. One clear proof of the non-existence of this oft-clichéd uniformity is of course is the massive amount of Egyptians who joined the revolution, compared to those who either abstained or rejected it. This piece highlights, however, the meaning that the leadership office has had on Egyptians throughout the years, even if not always held in high regard. It is not entirely dissimilar to other nations with a characteristic of central presidential figures, like the US perhaps, though with certain differences to be sure. It also highlights the emotions felt as one parts way with a long and significant era of national history, whether these emotions are clearly negative, positive, quite mixed, or even bittersweet.

Bassem Sabry is Media Executive, Producer and Blogger who writes about Egypt and Current Affairs. His Blog, An Arab Citizen, can be found at, and you can follow his Twitter feed @bassem_sabry

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