Friday, 11 February 2011

So long, Hosni. What now?

The regime is dead! Long live .. er .. the regime? There are scenes of great jubilation in Cairo and across Egypt today, as Hosni Mubarak, president for 30 years, finally accepted reality and stepped down. His earlier refusal to go had stunned everyone, as he seemed to be clinging to the hope - like a drunken imbecile chatting up his pretty ex-girlfriend in a bar - that Egypt might let him have his wicked way with her for at least a few more months. 

"It's over, Hosni, can't you see that?" she tells him, firmly.

"Oh, come aaaahhhhn, we were good together - hic!" he implores, sliding off his stool. "Juz gimme one more chance. I promise it'll be better this time. I'll give up the corruption, the torture, the deceit and all my foreign mistresses. Come on, whaddya say, huh?"

"Forget it, Hosni. You're all washed up. I've got a new boyfriend now. He's handsome and his name is Freedom. He also has a friend called Democracy and we're going to live together in a ménage-à-trois. I've had enough of your lies and your tyranny. We're through!"

Of course, there was no way Mubarak was going to stay. His bluff had been called two weeks ago, when he failed to quell the demonstrations in the beginning. Egypt's people finally got a little taste of freedom and found the regime powerless to stop them. There was no way they were just going to slink off back home after that. It's a heart-warming story and I extend my congratulations to the people of Egypt. I really hope that they can begin to live in genuine freedom, but without wanting to sound like a party pooper, I still have my doubts.

The army, as in most countries of the world, still holds all the cards. Nasser, Sadat and then Mubarak all came from the ranks of the army. There is no guarantee that the army will allow democracy to take root in Egypt; they could just install another dictator, under the guise of democratic reform. Nevertheless, it will be much harder for any future Egyptian leader to ignore the people's will and their demands for real freedom. That genie is now out of the bottle. If Egyptians are denied a multi-party pluralist democracy, they may take to the streets again, in the knowledge that they wield more power than they ever dared think. Dictators everywhere should quake at that thought.

However, there remains the danger of a brutal backlash. I am reminded of the student protests in China's Tiananmen Square, which were eventually crushed by military force. That way lies either an even harsher Western backed military dictatorship, or possibly a revolutionary theocracy, as in Iran. Western governments can help to ensure that doesn't happen, by maintaining strong pressure for democracy.

Western governments may find it difficult to champion democracy in Egypt, given their history of backing dictators, of course. Egypt only serves to highlight the utter hypocrisy of US policy in particular: whilst advocating 'regime change' in Iraq, the US bolstered tyrants across the Arab world and still does, whilst our media always dutifully reported Mubarak's phony 'election victories', as if he were a popular leader with a democratic mandate. Maybe it's about time we ditched supposed expediency in favour of the principles we pretend to espouse? Maybe that would actually be in everyone's long term interests.

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