Chaos and confusion prevail in Cairo
Dictators build bridges where no rivers exist (with apologies to Nikita Khrushchev). The long suffering, patient, civilised people of Egypt trusted their leader. Before they could say Gamal Abdul Gamal Naseer, it was thirty years. Mr Mubarak took over in 1981 after the assassination of President Sadat. President Mubarak was then 52 years old. Today he is 82.
He was actually proposing to run for yet another five years term later this year. Egypt with a population of 82 million is the largest Arab country. Mr Hosni Mubarak began as a supporter of the Non-aligned Movement but gradually entered the American camp.
Each year the US has pumped in nearly $4 billion in aid. Mr Mubarak has played a consistently constructive role on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which attracts lightening but not answers. President Mubarak is a known and trusted entity in Israel. The Israelis must be deeply concerned at the growing turmoil in Egypt. With no obvious successor to Mr Mubarak in sight, Israeli worries will mount. Mr Obama is at the moment the least popular foreign leader in Egypt. America has huge stakes in Egypt.
The Middle East foreign policy of the USA is structured around Mr Mubarak.
Mr Obama is caught between the Nile and the Pyramid. On the one hand he talks of the rights and fundamental freedoms of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, he is unwilling to abandon a long-standing reliable but hated ally. Day by day the tide is turning against the well-meaning, pontificating Mr Obama. He has so far not attained the status of a statesman. This critical crisis can be an opportunity. John F Kennedy earned the spurs of statesmanship during the Cuban crisis of 1962.
Is Mr El Baradei the answer? A highly distinguished Egyptian, Nobel laureate and accomplished diplomat, he no doubt is. Yet he has serious handicaps. Lack of a mass base. Forty-year absence from his country. No charisma.
Only the Egyptian people can decide whether they want a competent, well-meaning technocrat or a leader. In reality, the much-respected army will be the decisive element. They have been loyal to Mubarak. Is that loyalty lapidary or less solid?
Mr Hosni Mubarak has not been a benign dictator. Today he is the most unpopular man in Egypt. His broadcast last week displayed a total disconnect with reality. He spoke yesterday’s language and his political antenna is giving him wrong signals. His new team invites derision, not confidence. The chant most heard in Tahrir Square is “Mubarak out”. Obviously, the man is not “listening”. In the Arab world democracy has not taken root. Not one country is a democracy. Lebanon is a marginal case — half Arab, half Christian. Arab countries don’t change leaders in a hurry. Mr. Gadaffi has ruled Libya since 1969. Mr Boutoflika has been at the helm in Algeria for 20 years. Mr Asad’s father was President of Syria for 28 years, the present President of Yemen has misruled for 33 years. The ousted, rapacious Tunisian leader, Mr Ben Ali, was around for 23 years. In the Gulf states no ruler retires. Only death removes them. There has been just one exception but no one remembers his name.
What has caused this revolt in a country which is the home of one of mankind’s greatest civilisations? The Egyptians are a sophisticated people. They have not always been fortunate in their leaders. Gamal Nasser is the sole 20th century exception. With all his faults, he was a charismatic, towering leader.
The Jasmine revolt of Tunisia was obviously the trigger. President Mubarak did not take it seriously. Will the unrest spread to Jordan, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Morocco? The regimes in these countries must be taking strong tranquilisers. Tunisia is not the only cause. There are others. Forty per cent Egyptians live on $2 a day. Unemployment is 9.7 per cent, annual price rise 17 per cent, inflation 12 per cent. Add police brutality. Mr. Mubarak did not allow political parties to grow. These are 6 April Movement, Muslim Brotherhood, Al Ghad Party, WAFD Party (the oldest) and the National Association For Change, which supports El Baradei. At the moment of writing, confusion and uncertainty prevail.
There was a time when Indo-Egyptian ties in all fields were close. Nasser respected Nehru, who liked the young Nasser. Today, it seems India has no cohesive, well-thought through Egypt policy. Shermal-Sheikh did not leave a happy memory. Egypt too has no serious India policy. So far as the present revolt is concerned, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
— The writer is a former Minister for External Affairs.