It’s tempting to see what’s happening in Egypt as a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. In both countries, a simple and powerful narrative has emerged – the oppressed masses, living in the shadow of a venal, cruel and autocratic regime, finally throw off their shackles through waves of popular protest which are broadcast live on Al-Jazeera. The revolution will be televised. Egypt, being bigger, and Mubarak being more cynical, is taking a little longer and provoking more violence; but in essense, Egypt is mirroring Tunisia’s experience.
In the subtleties, the situations are a little more complicated. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why, in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure, has Hosni Mubarak clung onto power so vociferously, whereas Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took flight at the first sign of trouble and now apparently finds himself living in the very same Saudi villa where Idi Amin passed the years of his exile. Perhaps one day it will be a museum.
Mubarak has shown no signs of flight.Here’s why. Tunisia, for all the hyperbole, is a significantly richer and significantly less oppressed society than Egypt. There is scope for the country to adopt some kind of unity government – which it has done already – and muddle through the reforms it desperately needs. Crucially, while proximity to Ben Ali has tainted his key ministers and advisors, it has not proved fatal to their lives or their livelihoods; the government remains largely intact and many of the anicien regime appear to be part of the foundation of the new one. So when the demonstrations got out of hand, and they saw the writing on the wall, they knew they still had a future – or at least a possibility of one –as long as Ben Ali was out of the way. So he got out of the way. Did he jump or was he pushed? I suspect the latter. He left power suspiciously quickly, with a suspicious lack of fight; I’d expect autocratic dictators in his mold to try a bit harder.
Egypt is different. Mubarak personalised his rule to such an extent that an entire class of society came to depend almost entirely on his grace and favour. He came to define patriarchy. And in a much larger and poorer society, the difference between the people who benefitted from having Mubarak in power, and those who didn’t, was much greater than in Tunisia.
The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.So, I have no idea if Mubarak would like to join Ben Ali in exile – perhaps Ben Ali could let him have the guest bedroom? – but even if he did want to go, I’m not sure he would be allowed to. This is, I think, why Mubarak has no choice but to cling to power with everything he has.
VERDICT: Hosni Mubarak goes fourth; Idi Amin’s villa goes forth.