For cautious Mubarak, change became overwhelming

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who has reshuffled his government but refused to step down, met some of the new ministers on Saturday, the state news agency said, in a clear rebuff to the hundreds of thousands of people publicly demanding the 82-year-old leader step down.
By Will Englund and Samuel Sockol
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 9:38 PM

CAIRO - Hosni Mubarak kept Egypt under total control for nearly three decades, not through charisma or inspiration, but by building a system of patronage and brutality that was beyond challenge. In the past two weeks, those methods have failed him.

The popular uprising in the Arab world's biggest country has tested the limits of Mubarak's reliance on the system he inherited and reshaped, and his frequent threat that, without him in charge, the country would face chaos - a tradeoff that the country's middle and upper classes have not been willing to make.

Change here has been pushed by a new generation that refuses to accept the rationalizations of its parents. When the economy began to sour two years ago, young people discovered that a system built on nepotism and bribery was shutting them out of university slots and jobs. Their grievances mounted, and then spilled out on the streets, with demands for an end to Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

Mubarak - aloof and, up to now, savvy about keeping himself in power - attracts great loyalty, still, of course.

His followers call him their father and protector. But interwoven with the passion and faith of those on his side are new feelings - of sympathy. After he addressed the nation Tuesday night, in his pleasant baritone, supporters on the streets of Cairo argued that he's an old man, at 82, and should be allowed his dignity.

Aladdin Elaasar, author of the book "The Last Pharaoh,'' calls Mubarak's government "a neo-sultanistic regime." It's a system, he writes, based not on ideology or even leadership qualities, but on "a mixture of fear and rewards to his collaborators."

Or, as Elaasar put it: "The ruler exercises his power without restraint, at his own discretion."

The blinded 'hero'

Mubarak sits atop the pyramid of Egyptian society. Orders flow down, and money - almost certainly - flows up. Egyptian corruption grew to enormous proportions under him.

"But it was very comfortable for him," said Amaney Jamal, an expert on Arab politics at Princeton University. "He felt the status quo was sustainable."

Under this structure, what doesn't flow back up to the top is reliable information. Mubarak's Egypt is a nation with a huge and pervading police structure, but critics say its spies and torturers were incapable of presenting a reliable picture of the country to the people at the apex, because they rejected anything that didn't fit their own view. "We live in a triangle society," said Abd Al Rahman, an English teacher. The subordinate's duty is to obey, not to discuss and never to question.

This is a weakness of any hierarchical structure, but in Egypt's case it became nearly absolute.

"He has merged his own ego with the state," said Dina Guirguis, of a Washington-based group called Voices for a Democratic Egypt. "He views himself as Egypt's hero."

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