Their names sometimes stretch back farther than our memories: King Norodom Sihahouk of Cambodia, Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Egypt’s Mubarak, and a handful of others. For me, a student of international relations, their names are like the very ghosts of history, arrayed across the sky, haunting us always.
But today we can rub out one of these names. Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for more than three decades, has resigned under the relentless pressure of his own people. The age of Mubarak has ended.
Not having stood beside these Egyptians who have taken to the streets, or experienced what they have, I cannot feel any deep hatred for Mubarak. I even feel somewhat at a loss. Egypt without Mubarak? Isn’t Mubarak part of what Egypt is all about?
Certainly, for people of my age who grew up reading about Egypt, Mubarak is an integral part of the Egypt we know, as symbolic as the mummies of the Pharaohs. We have long seen facts, or been presented with Mubarak’s facts, showing that he ushered in decades of stability for Egypt in a historically turbulent North Africa. Under Mubarak’s rule, Egypt enjoyed a period of rapid economic development. And his government, moreover, was one of the most secular in the region.
It was Mubarak who resolved the basic deprivation of the Egyptian people and brought stability. He became, along with Egypts mummies, a ready symbol of the country. For some time, this name, Mubarak, bore the dreams and glory of the Egyptian people and defined the vision the world had of this ancient nation.
Egypt and Iraq are among the world’s most ancient civilizations, along with a number of countries in East Asia. In countries in these regions, modern ideas of democracy have often come into conflict with deep-rooted ancient traditions, and they have been among the last to explore the possibilities of democracy.
Ah, Mubarak, this might have been a wonderful opportunity for you! Had you only realized that democracy, while it can be delayed for some time, cannot be stopped indefinitely. Why, during the more than thirty years that you ran the country, did you not make an effort to promote change, using the political power in your grasp to stand with your people, reinvigorating an ancient civilization? Instead you played for time, standing against reforms that might have bettered Egypt and provided for you a way out. Now, in the bitter end, you have no choice but to somberly step down.
Mubarak might have carried on the hopes of the Egyptian people. If he had carried out political reforms, even in the last moments of those thirty plus years during which he held nearly absolute authority [NOTE: the parallel between Mubarak’s 30 years and the 30 years of economic reform and opening in China is subtle but clear in the Chinese original]. If he had seized the opportunity, heeding the good advice of his own people, he might have been regarded not just with dignity but with gratitude as well, his place in the heart of Egypt secure. Egyptians might have regarded him as Americans regard Washington.
The opportunity has passed. Mubarak’s greatest mistake was not to heed those words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said: “If you want total security, go to prison.”
Based on my limited knowledge of international affairs, I honestly don’t think the Egypt of the future will necessarily experience better economic development than it did under your rule, Mubarak. The country’s political situation won’t necessarily be more stable, or Egyptian society more “harmonious.” This was always the justification you waved for holding back political reform and refusing to hand the power to the people. It was also the reason you always enjoyed support from the United States.
But if you are a student of history, it should be clear to you that no matter what pain or hardship Egypt faces in the future, it will never return to the era of Mubarak. Before long the people of Egypt will come to realize that the chaos of their country’s democratic transition is not without your shadow, Mubarak. For its roots will lie in part in the very fact that your rule was so unduly extended. Goodbye, Mubarak!
When I was in college, I learned by heart how you ruled your people, how you led them to war, and how you brought them out of an era of deprivation, using your own method with Egyptian characteristics to build a harmonious society [NOTE: this is a clear play on CCP discourse about “socialism with Chinese characteristic” and the “harmonious society”].
My son has read about you in his own history books. But now the people of Egypt have stood up, and they have given you and the world its most important lesson yet in how nations must be governed: illegitimate political power can never be legitimized, it says — no matter how high and mighty the justifications given may be, no matter how exalted the words, no matter how powerful the military. For an old man such as yourself, this is understandably the final lesson. But for the few people in the world who still wield absolute political power in a handful of countries, this is not the final lesson. I truly hope that you have the opportunity to speak about your own experiences in this moment, so that you might leave something beneficial behind for the world.
In the past few weeks, as your people took to the streets, the situation shifting so rapidly, you must have hesitated, not knowing which way to go. Perhaps you even considered ordering an attack on your people. In the end, you hoped the people would give you some time, even if it was just a few months.
Some have said you wanted this time to prepare your route of retreat, and transfer the vast riches your family and the special interests around you had amassed during your rule. I have a different take on this — a different fancy, you might say. Perhaps you, an old man in his eighties, struggled in those weeks to hold on to power because you woke rudely to a fresh regret. Is that it? And at that moment you hoped to use your final burst of power to do something meaningful for your people, giving them the right to free and fair elections. This way you might have, all at once, given hope to the people and left in a cloud of glory, preserving your place in history?
Oh, but it was too late! You had more than thirty years, but you never gave the people of Egypt an opportunity. So of course they were not willing to give you even a few days. You were unworthy.
Because you have exited the stage, it is as though Valentine’s Day has come early this year. It has suddenly dawned on the people of Egypt, who have lived so long in a nation musty with the smell of its mummified rulers, that every one of them has an unmissable date with a precious life of freedom and democracy.
February 12, 2011, two days from Valentine’s Day.
[Frontpage Photo by “darkroom productions” available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]