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The one about the dictator

DeVan Ard | Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hosni Mubarak is on his death bed. An aide comes to his side and asks if he plans to deliver a farewell speech to his people. Mubarak looks up and replies, “Why, where are they going?”

Thus the old quip in Egypt about Mubarak’s grip on both power and reality. Perhaps it loses some of its humor in translation. But recent events have shown that Egyptian politics are no longer a joking matter. Seven days ago, thousands of people marched through the streets in protest of the authoritarian regime. The government has done little to encourage economic growth and it severely restricts civil liberties. I studied abroad in Cairo in 2007 and I often encountered these very problems. I met people with master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and business. These were valuable credentials in a sound pre-recession economy, but they could only find work in a hotel or driving a taxi.

I remember the omnipresent paramilitary guard that congregated in Cairo’s busiest squares. They wore all-black uniforms, and usually they stood lazily beside large troop carriers. Even without civil unrest, they took positions throughout the city, watching over pedestrians and the dense traffic (though traffic in Cairo may fairly be called civil unrest). I grew accustomed to their presence, as do all Egyptians. The frenzy of life in Cairo obscures all but the most immediate of the pedestrian’s obstacles — a table selling small wares in the middle of the sidewalk, suspicious liquid dripping steadily from a shop’s awning, or a sudden drop in the pavement. But I shudder slightly when I see those soldiers in photos now, awakened to violence by the advancing protesters.

There is a kind of national slogan in Egypt, an Arabic word: ma’lish. It means something like “that’s okay,” “everything will be fine,” or “whatever.” Didn’t finish your paper on time? Ma’lish. Forgot to pick up the milk? Ma’lish. It becomes easy to use but frustrating to hear. Try renewing your student visa in a reasonable amount of time. Now, there are hundreds of thousands taking a decisive stand against this demeanor within civil governance.

But it is difficult to imagine the “orderly transition” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for. Hosni Mubarak is a patriarch of the modern Egyptian state. Only two presidents preceded him, the first two Egyptians to exercise real political authority in Egypt for thousands of years. Mubarak stands in very small company. There is no living “former Egyptian president,” as both of his predecessors died in office. In Egyptian political memory, the end of a presidency means trauma: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s heart attack, Anwar El Sadat’s assassination.

These events shook the nation and made possible Mubarak’s modus operandi. The pervasive military guard prevents “threats to security,” a line that intentionally recalls terrorist attacks and other violent episodes from Egypt’s recent past. Deposing a patriarch, then, will require an immense effort of not merely vocal opposition but also national self-examination. A unity coalition must confront the legacy of Sadat and Nasser as well as Mubarak. Political trauma has created a difficult history from which healthy forms of authority can emerge. In spite of this, there are many outside of Egypt who hope that current events will lead to a new epoch of inclusive democracy. And they are no longer laughing about it.

DeVan Ard is a graduate student in the Department of Theology. He can be reached at dard@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.