Tunisia’s uprising has transfixed Egypt’s elite but Mubarak’s survival strategy proves he has learnt nothing from Ben Ali’s fall, writes Kamel Labidi
I was in Cairo on Friday 14 January, attending a lengthy meeting on ways to protect freedom of association and expression in Tunisia, when the country’s long-ruling dictator suddenly fled the country and became an unwelcome asylum seeker, particularly by his former Western allies.
The stunning collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, following four weeks of an unprecedented uprising against tyranny and corruption in Tunisia’s recent history, spurred indescribable feelings of joy and pride, not only among millions of Tunisians, but also in different parts of the Arab world still kept under the thumbs of dictators.
That evening, activists rushed to the heavily guarded Tunisian embassy in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s most affluent residential districts, chanting slogans welcoming the end of Ben Ali’s 23-year nightmarish “Era of Change” and expressing hope that Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of rule would be brought to a halt soon. “We are next, we are next, Ben Ali tell Mubarak he is next,” the protesters chanted.
Ben Ali confided to a Tunisian journalist, in the wake of his bloodless coup against President Habib Bourguiba in 1987, that he was looking forward to leading Tunisia the way Mubarak led Egypt since the assassination in 1981 of President Anwar Sadat. Both Mubarak and Ben Ali are former army officers, like most Arab rulers over the past 60 years. Each of them also paid lip service to democratic rule before settling into autocracy.
Egyptian dailies like the state-owned Al Ahram, the opposition Al Wafd, and the privately owned Al Osboe, which used to regularly publish anonymous and boring articles praising Ben Ali’s alleged “commitment to human rights” and “remarkable economic and social achievements” or insulting his critics rapidly turned their back on the fugitive dictator.
For the past 20 years, these pieces of propaganda used to be submitted over the past two decades to Egyptian and other editors in the region with large sums of money and also invitations to travel to Tunisia and stay at luxurious hotels by the notorious Tunisian Agency for External Communication (ATCE).
One of these sycophantic pieces ironically appeared in the opposition daily Al Ahrar, the same day Ben Ali fled Tunisia, said Egyptian journalist and democracy advocate Karem Yehya.
The state-owned and oldest daily in the Arab world, Al Ahram, referred to Ben Ali’s influential wife, just after this couple lost its grip on power, as the “hairdresser,” as many Tunisians used to disparagingly called her. It also published pictures of protesters celebrating Ben Ali’s collapse in the streets of Arab capitals, but ignored celebrations in Cairo, according to Egyptian journalists.
Instead of taking the time to analyse and learn from Tunisia’s inspiring uprising Mubarak’s aides and scribes called the idea that this uprising could be contagious “nonsense” and extensively pontificated on what they called the “different circumstances” prevailing in Egypt and Tunisia.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Abul Geith described the idea as “empty words” and reiterated Egypt’s respect of “Tunisian people’s will.” His irrational reaction was made nearly a week before the greatest uprising in Egypt’s recent history against oppressive rule.
The only lesson from Tunisia’s uprising that Mubarak, who obviously has been more entrenched and backed by more supporters in the country and friends in Western capitals than Ben Ali, seems to have learnt is the rapid implementation of a strategy of survival. This strategy apparently aims at showing the world that, unlike Tunisia, Egypt would fall apart without Mubarak.
Kamel Labidi, freelance journalist and advocacy director of IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group