In a short paper entitled “Prelude to Change” published in January 2006, by Brandeis University, I concluded that the constitutional amendments that Egypt carried out between 2005 and 2006 could be the beginning of the end of the Pharaoh state in Egypt. At the time, the term “Pharaoh state” was prevalent in political writings about Egypt under many titles, such as “Asian despotic model” and “river state”, even “military bureaucracy”. Irrespective of the title, the content dealt with the concentration of power with one person surrounded by an entourage of people who had their sights set on the entire country.
At the time, I suggested that constitutional amendments which allow multiple candidates to run for the presidency —although it was certain that Hosni Mubarak would win the presidency and other candidates were nothing more than window dressing to make it look like the electoral process was democratic —is the full circle of the democracy model. Along with other features, this meant that the Pharaoh would go to the street, present a platform, and be open to criticism here and there about his management of political and economic issues.
Years after this seed was sown, a shadow parliament in Egypt convened to reject government policies. The president at the time, Mubarak, declared in his infamous quote, “Let them have their fun,” as if the man had lost all touch with what was taking place and that his own and the political regime’s legitimacy was not on the line. Simply put, the Pharaoh was no longer a deity or pharaoh, and his power lost legitimacy until the January revolution came to pluck his authority like autumn leaves.
Mubarak fell, as did the Pharaoh state. Sadat had said he would be the last of the Pharaohs, but he did not know that another Pharaoh would succeed him and stay in power for 30 years, making him the longest ruler of Egypt since Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt. They were not an easy three decades of rule; when he came to power in the 1980s he inherited a near bankrupt state, and once he realised that previous economic policies were failures he began in the 1990s genuine economic reforms that enabled Egypt to gradually begin overcoming its economic difficulties.
Ironically, exiting the economic swamp was the beginning of the rise of the young generation, the expansion of the middle class, availability of economic opportunities, and a revolution in the Egyptian media that was obsessed with stripping the Pharaoh of his legitimacy after he had survived several assassination attempts. But the Pharaoh regime was causing a new incident every day that demonstrated its failure and inability to stay in control.
Incidents of sectarian strife, as well as major disasters such as the sunken ferry that killed one thousand Egyptians, were perhaps the first warning signs but not the last. The greatest calamity is that the regime was fooling itself, fabricating the facts it wanted to see, resisting revelations and truths that may have extended its reign. Two days before the Egyptian revolution on 25 January, in the same chamber where Mubarak’s trial began, there was a celebration of Police Day and a lie was declared to the public about the arrest of the perpetrators behind the appalling attack on the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.
I don’t know why, but at the time I felt the president was not convinced with the information he was presented. But perhaps out of habit, or to uphold celebrations, he was willing to congratulate the police force and Major General Habib El-Adly on the extensive efforts undertaken in capturing the culprits. When the state kids itself and fabricates facts for itself, it means it is eroding and rotting; this is what led Mubarak to the same courtroom on 3 August.
Mubarak appeared in court contrary to all expectations; namely that he would never make an appearance. There was a reasonable excuse that his health would not allow it, and there were other rumoured reasons such as that he struck a deal with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when he transferred power to them, in return for immunity in Sharm El-Sheikh under any name. Some even thought the Pharaoh would be granted amnesty in return for surrendering his wealth; one lawyer even suggested Mubarak died in 2006 and the appearance of his double in the courtroom was a ruse to cover up the scandal.
None of this is relevant since the last Pharaoh came to court and behaved as defendants do, and as he should. He responded to the judge when his name was called, “Yes sir, present”. The fallen Pharaoh responded to the judge with “Yes sir”, even though only a few months earlier he had served as the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary. It took only two words to signal the end of one of the most quintessential privileges of the Pharaoh state: being president or king or khedive or wali or Pharaoh. In short, the head of the supreme councils of the judiciary, the police, the armed forces and tens of others that I doubt Mohamed Hosni Mubarak himself could remember.
Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Arab Republic of Egypt, entered the defendant’s cage reclined on a gurney accompanied by his two sons who remained standing throughout the hearing, perhaps to protect him or shield him from the cameras. In fact, there were no chairs available for them to sit down even if they wanted. The entire scene was very dramatic, and the courtroom became the epicentre of Egypt’s geography and the country’s new history. Is it truly possible that being Pharaoh is a custom or a truth that cannot be snuffed out, and we are now seeing the beginning of a new Pharaoh era that would perhaps take on a new name and form, but in the end remains Pharaonic?
Days before the trial began, Tahrir Square had changed and became the birthplace of the beginning of a new religious Pharaoh of another shade, in the absence of anyone who is remotely related to democracy or the harbingers of a different Egypt from what existed there before. This was perhaps a little too pessimistic and no one wants to rob the moment of its lustre, but signs indicate that the Pharaoh state is greater than the Pharaoh himself whose rule could erode, his resources dry up and performance stumble. Meanwhile, the essence remains the same and its components are reincarnated and revived perhaps in new forms, but are in fact the same.
Surely, the Nile continues to flow, the Egyptians are still on their land with a long history behind them, and customs remain firmly in place, mocking change and the instance of revolution. For let us ask: how many of these rulers have come and gone?