Twin portrait of Mubarak and Ben Ali: Same regimes, same endings

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 7 Apr 2014

Egyptian author Karem Yehia draws a portrait of the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia who were deposed in the Arab spring

Mubarak and Bin Ali
Ousted presidents Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali

Al-Shabihan – Sira Muzdawagah li Mubarak wa Ben Ali (The Lookalikes – Double biography of Mubarak and Ben Ali) by Karem Yehia, General Organisation of Cultural Palaces, The Revolution Writings Series, Cairo, 2014. pp.247

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were only days apart but what is more important, in the author's view, is the outstanding similarities between the two dictators who ruled the countries. Even the title of the book, The Lookalikes, is derived from the biographies of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, which reached the extent of being identical in their upbringing and rise through the military ranks to reach the point where both of them was dying his hair and indulging in life's pleasures, culminating in their disgraceful deposition.

It is noteworthy to mention that Karem Yehia, the book's author, started working on his book the day after Ben Ali escaped from Tunisia, on 15 January 2011. The first chapter was published on the website of Al-Badeel newspaper, ten days before the Egyptian revolution. The author was so seduced by the resemblances between the two dictators that he even published the second chapter on the same site on 24 January 2011. As for the rest of the book, he compiled its data and wrote the book during the revolution and after the deposition of Mubarak.

Thus, the idea for the book, the first two chapters and the compilation of data for the remaining chapters, were done actually before Mubarak's deposition. The author points out that he was determined to finish the book whether Mubarak was deposed or remained in office.

Despite this, it is undoubted that deposing the dictator granted him more freedom and opened new horizons for his writing. Facets of resemblance between the two dictators reach a stage of being identical, such as their humble upbringings and the years of childhood, mysterious learning and the poor cultural and political formation that borders on ignorance.

Definitely, the author exerted a tremendous effort to compile the data for this book. For the Tunisian dictator remained in power for 23 years, while his Egyptian counterpart for 30 years, and this enabled the security apparatuses in both countries to remove and delete every detail that conflicted with the stereotypical image which the lookalikes intended to be drawn.

The author reread many official documents issued by the Ministry of Information in the two countries, in addition to many books full of flattery and cheap praise which ran like a flood throughout the reign of the two dictators. But the author resorted to reading what was between the lines. What was more significant was the archives of Egyptian newspapers and what was available and accessible in Tunisian newspapers. These newspapers formed a treasure trove of snippets of information, reports and reportages over almost three decades.

The book's nine chapters track the rise of both dictators. Each of them was a military officer who rose and was promoted without any distinction among their peers. If Mubarak was, for instance, without any political or cultural interests and stayed away from the public life except for appearing twice in two films as an extra. Ben Ali did not play any role until he became interior minister. Both stayed in the shadows for many years. Ben Ali made a palace coup, Mubarak was chosen by President Sadat to be his vice-president then he became president after Sadat was assassinated.  

The facets of resemblance continue between the two generals. Seven months after the palace coup in which the senile Bourguiba was overthrown, Ben Ali released Rached Al-Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist movement An-Nahda, from prison, he even received him in the Carthage presidential palace. General Mubarak released the first group of political activists, who were detained by Sadat in September 1981, thus ushering in a new era. Soon it was discovered in both countries that this release was a lie made for local consumption on the one hand and a message to the West in order to receive political support on the other hand.

The author devotes a chapter to the worship of the president and his sacred family, pointing out the impossibility of counting the number of the books published in praise of the two presidents. "This seems absurd like trying to count the birds in the sky," to quote the author. Consequently, he resorted – in the case of Mubarak – to the contents of the digital memory of the General Egyptian Book Organisation's main library, only to discover that its records stop in 2005. He turned to the newspaper archives and specifically on 4 May every year because it is Mubarak's birthday. Flattery did not stop at greetings and cheap eulogising, it was even extended to the horoscope for it was to be appropriately written to coincide with his birthday. It even reached another pinnacle of flattery in 2009, when Al-Ahram's editorial was titled "When Egypt was born anew." 

The two presidents' worship was expanded to include their wives and the rest of their families. Every single bit of detail concerning the past of Leïla, her first marriage before Ben Ali and her work as a hairdresser, which was not shameful at all, was totally erased. But what was intended was drawing a new image for the First Lady. What is astonishing is that both wives were called "the Virtuous Lady" by the press. Anyway, the paths of the two ladies bear a number of similarities which the author presents in detail. But what is important here is that the two presidents' families, their in-laws and direct relatives were a red line that was unapproachable. The catastrophe is augmented when we know the details of the tight network that controlled the business, its stars and heroes were Mubarak's son and his in-laws in the Egyptian case and Ben Ali's brothers and his wife's brothers in the Tunisian case.

Naturally, it was not possible to build the two states without the police. The security apparatuses permeated every aspect of life in the two countries. Statistics show Tunisia had a policeman for every 70 citizens and Egypt a policeman for every 50 citizens. According to reliable sources, the records of the security services in the two countries were crammed with abuses, violations, torture and disappearances. The preoccupation with security became the main engine for the ruling regimes. Some sources state that the majority of detention and torture victims were not politically oriented, thus torture was adopted as a general policy.

The facets of similarity stop at the last scene where both were deposed almost at the same time and they were stripped of their masks and – as it is said – thrown in the dustbin of history.



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