The Mubarak regime’s facade as representing security, stability, and the protection of its people has imploded. The government has nothing left to offer its people. Its only goal is self-preservation. Its only argument is that without it the forces of hell will be unleashed upon the nation. The government’s problem is that it failed to offer the Egyptian people much beyond these negatives. The question still facing Egypt, its people, and its government is will the apparatus of power- namely, the army and the police infrastructure- turn on their master in support of the people, or does this apparatus sufficiently benefit from the status quo. For the regime the indications are ominous.
Mubarak’s vision for Egypt’s future has alienated many in the power base that he relied on for many years. His original plan for a managed transition to a civilian government, bequeathed to his son, and to modernize the economy was one that he would have dictated to the people unilaterally without any consensus to support him. Having spent 30 years with almost absolute power his hubris led him to believe that he was the sole actor and arbitrator of the fate of 80 million people. It is an illusion that dictators govern by the force of their own power, as if omnipotent beings. Their power comes from the acquiescence of the apparatus of power named above and the practical benefits that trickle down to society’s lower levels through a system of patronage. Five years ago, this popular uprising would have, most likely, instantly been crushed. So what happened to undermine his position and what can he do to save himself, if anything?
First, Mubarak sidelined the old guard and entrenched powers within his own party to promote the technocratic elite – pushing aside the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the military with toxic side effects. This meant the alienation of an old guard with a solid power base for polished businessmen with no grass roots power. In exchange for those who, though intelligent, articulate, and imbued in Western culture, grew up behind the proverbial glass and who grew wildly rich during the economic reforms of the past two decades. These business elite pushed forward a policy of further economic liberalization, which increased the wealth divide between themselves and their subjects in a nation where 20% of the population lives under the poverty line and another 40% live just above it. The old system of patronage – where there is a hierarchy of leadership which provides favors and power to the layers below it – was washed away by this new business leadership.
To add more volatility to the mix; this ruling elite lived an ostentatious, and very public lifestyle that countered the fiber of a very conservative impoverished nation. Egypt’s economic growth boomed in the past decade while at the same time the middle and lower classes received little benefit or sunk lower into poverty’s mire. The wealth did not seep down to the lower levels of society who could only join in the economy by serving the elite as waiters, maids, drivers, construction workers and other forms of menial labor. In these roles they directly witnessed the disparity between the misery they lived in and the previously unimaginable luxury of the few that benefitted from this growth.
Second, Mubarak’s grooming of his son, Gamal – a former investment banker, and head of the NDP – to succeed him further undermined his support. The old guard understood they would have to accept their alienation permanently as Gamal Mubarak was the greatest champion of the new technocratic ministers and laid the foundations for a move away from a military basis of power. Such a move to civilian rule would have been welcome by many reformists had it not been imposed by the very autocracy they wanted to change. The masses saw in it the total subjugation of not only themselves but generations to come. It was an exemplification of the cronyism and nepotism they have suffered from and it was another sign that the government saw itself as doling out privileges rather than acknowledging rights.
Egypt currently stands at a crossroads, as events in Tunisia pulled back the curtains of Mubarak’s authority revealing a tired old man who could no longer live up to the giant images of him as a vigorous, youthful, all-powerful father that are strewn all across Egypt. There is still hope for the protesters now in their eighth day in Tahrir (Liberation) Square and it remains to be seen whether the apparatus of the state will crush the protesters’ dreams through extreme brutality. This has happened in the past and still can.
Or will the army say that they too have had enough and want a change? Already, the army acknowledged that the call for change by the citizens was a legitimate one and that they would not fire against peaceful protesters. Every soldier comes from the same people they are now tasked with controlling. Is it possible that they will fire on their family, neighbors, and friends to protect the few who have clearly shown they care nothing for but their own power? Only time will tell.