Egypt: Time & Trouble: Part One of Four

Egyptians waited a quarter-century under Hosni Mubarak's regime for life to get better. It hasn't, and now they're calling for change.

Egypt 2006

By Eric Ringham

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – The ancient pharaohs paid in blood and treasure for eternal life, but even they left office eventually. Sooner or later, Hosni Mubarak will join them. No pyramid waits for him, though. At 78, President Mubarak's only hope for immortality rests on his place in the hearts of his people.

And the reception he gets there may make him long for the relative peace and quiet of the Egyptian Museum's mummy room. After a quarter-century in power as heir to the assassinated Anwar Sadat, Mubarak gives stability a bad name. "People are expecting change. They are demanding it," a Western diplomat remarked this month. Opposition groups are forming around the word "change" - mothers for change, doctors for change, engineers for change. They have also organized around the word kifaya - enough. Egyptians have waited a long time for some softening of the harshness of their lives. Population growth is leveling off, but only after doubling to 77 million in 30 years. Basic services like health care and garbage collection remain spotty or nonexistent. Poverty is widespread. The so-called "emergency" law imposed after Sadat's death has been repeatedly extended, most recently this month, despite official assurances that it would be allowed to expire. Political reform remains an empty promise, with opposition candidates sitting in jail on charges that are inflated when not fabricated. Street demonstrations, tolerated for a while, now end in harsh displays of government power.

This month, for example, a little group calling itself artists and poets for change staged a march in a public square. Twelve of them had no sooner assembled than they were confronted by police.

"The leader of the police said, `We know you very well, and we know your children,'-" recounted Ahmed Fouad Negm, a poet and prominent dissident who has gone to prison under two previous regimes. "-`We don't want to use force against you, but we have orders to disperse the demonstration.'-"

On a bigger scale, hundreds of protesters turned out 10 days ago to support two judges who face disciplinary proceedings for denouncing fixed elections. Police responded swiftly and brutally, clubbing and arresting demonstrators and journalists. The event drew criticism around the world, including from the Bush administration. White House officials met secretly with Mubarak's son and rumored heir, Gamal, the next day.

The news of that meeting - confirmed last week after an Al-Jazeera correspondent reported seeing Gamal enter the White House - is likely to draw a cynical reaction among the regime's critics, who dislike the son almost as much as they do the father. "He's a copy of his father, and his father is an oaf," said Negm.

In Cairo, independent newspaper editor Hisham Kassem dismissed any talk of Gamal as a serious contender for his father's job. "It's a total waste of analysis, ink, hours. ... The boy has no experience. He does not have the credentials to be commander in chief."

One reason for the resentment toward Gamal is the widespread suspicion that the succession is being fixed. Hosni Mubarak has deliberately left the succession unclear, failing to name a vice president in 25 years. He has been quoted as saying he can't find anyone qualified to take his place.

Meanwhile, he's been grooming Gamal, who until a few years ago showed no political ambition and who now heads a policy committee in the ruling New Democratic Party. Visiting the United States to meet with high officials used to be Hosni's job; yet it was Gamal who went to the White House the other day, giving him a foreign-policy credential that Egyptians won't fail to notice. It will seem to many a sign that, even after he leaves office, Mubarak's policies will continue.

"Look out the window and see the pyramids," the Western diplomat said. Egyptians, he suggested, "perfected all the bureaucratic arts of resistance to change."

The poet Negm - who has not been in prison under Mubarak, but says he is ready to go - freely admits to despising Mubarak's entire family. From his apartment building, he watches hungry people search a trash heap for something edible, and he denounces the Mubaraks for their wealth. He offered Mubarak a challenge - to visit his home in the Mokatam Hills outside Cairo.

"You're a millionaire, you're a billionaire. Come to this place and see people eating out of the garbage," he said.

As for Gamal, he offered a poem:

Congratulations, O our groom,

You who have a lot of noise and publicity around you,

You who are taking us with you-

State your demands and your wishes.

We leave one Heaven to enter another.

It makes no difference to us.

Nor has it inflicted harm on our bodies

Nor pained our hearts, or our balls.

O groom of the state,

Just be happy and enjoy.

We don't hate you

But we see through you.

You will complete your religion

But you will make us lose ours.