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    Middle East
     Feb 8, 2011


Mubarak's cult of personality endures
By Simon Allison

CAIRO - Another sun rises above Tahrir Square. The protesters are still here, in their thousands. They will not leave, they say, until Mubarak does. It is fitting that this revolution should end with the exit of the man who caused it; after all, a revolution needs a climax, and what better climax than the president formally relinquishing all power? But removing a president does not a revolution make. Removing a regime, on the other hand - now that's a revolution.

It can be easy to confuse the two, especially if for decades they have been inextricably linked. Hosni Mubarak was never actively narcissistic in the vein of a Joseph Stalin or a Saddam Hussein, in the promotion of his public image. He eschewed such classic

 
tactics as putting his profile on bank notes, which are decorated instead with mosques and pharaohs (though some might argue that the pharaoh was just a metaphor for the president). And while his portrait was a feature of all government offices, its absence in public spaces and homes wasn't taken as a threat to the regime.

But nonetheless, as the head of a dictatorial police state for nearly three decades, a cult of personality grew up around him, and became a central plank of his exercise of power. Effusive compliments of Mubarak's leadership, wisdom and strength were a regular feature of the evening news on state television. Anything that went right in Egypt was ultimately down to him and him alone; on the few occasions when something went wrong, it was somebody else's fault. Mubarak became the state; the state was Mubarak.

This was nonsense. Mubarak was the ultimate authority, but he certainly could not make every decision himself. And nor did he. Other figures operated and maneuvered behind the scenes, wielding their influence in the shadows, an influence all the more powerful for it being out of the limelight. There was Omar Suleiman - the spy chief, the enforcer, the man who would unpack the box of dirty tricks for which the regime was so notorious - and who is now the vice president.

But he, and others, operated in the shadows, and are now protected by those shadows. While the other edifices of Mubarak's rule crumble around him, his cult of personality endures. This is why, for the demonstrators, there can be no other conceivable solution to the current impasse than Mubarak's exit, dignified or otherwise.

But as the protesters wait to cut off the head of the snake, the body is making its moves, specifically, Suleiman. Quietly, and without fanfare, he has put himself in prime position to manage the transition process, even getting the nod of approval from the United States.

Suleiman oversaw and maintained the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel, and enjoys good relations with Washington and Tel Aviv. The US and Israel both could relax with him in control. He is also conducting negotiations with various opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood (although the Brotherhood insists it was not negotiating, merely listening).

It seems there are two possible resolutions to the situation. The first, the more likely, is that Mubarak stays as president, stripped of real power, and a hardcore of demonstrators spends the next seven months in Tahrir Square until elections that Mubarak has said he will not contest; the presidential powers would in the meantime be transferred to Suleiman, never mind that he is just as complicit in Mubarak's regime as Mubarak himself.

The second option is that Suleiman promises to give the opposition Mubarak's resignation, on condition that he, Suleiman, be allowed to run the transitional period. Both solutions involve actual power in the hands of Suleiman.

If the revolution is to be effective - and if the opposition is to politically destroy Mubarak for good - it will understand that he is not and never was the Egyptian state in its entirety. Getting rid of him is only one part of the equation. The other is finishing off the regime - a task that would be made exponentially more difficult if the transition process were managed by Suleiman, one of its architects.

Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is one of the few to have pointed out the absurdity of Suleiman's role. "The process [of negotiation about transition] is managed by the outgoing regime without involvement of the new opposition, if you like, or the rest of the people ... It is all managed by Vice President Omar Suleiman, it is all managed by the military."

If Mubarak does go in the next few days, the people of Egypt should congratulate themselves on an important milestone, but also realize that their job is not finished. As long as Mubarak's right-hand man continues to wield huge power, the revolution is not over, even if it is reaching its natural climax.

Simon Allison is a Master's graduate of the London School of African and Oriental Studies; he has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East. His blog can be found here.

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