Workers demand an increase in the minimum wage, left unchanged since 1984.
|Martial law has been in place in Egypt since the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 [Makary]|
As Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, turns 82 this year, many Egyptians are growing increasingly concerned about the fate of their nation.
With 28 years of his presidency behind them and 2011 general elections fast approaching, even the country’s ruling elite are unsure as to whether Mubarak will step down or continue for a sixth term.
“We can now count the months before elections and we still don’t know who we’re going to nominate,” says Ashraf Naguib, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“What we do know is that the NDP isn’t going anywhere and change is imminent.”
Contemplating the prospect of such change and the legacy that Mubarak will one day leave behind divides many Egyptians.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a once-jailed political dissident, gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo on Mubarak’s birthday in 2006.
He opened his speech by saying: “After Pepi II, Ramses II was the longest ruling pharaoh of Egypt. He ruled for a total of 67 years and strengthened ancient Egypt against the Libyans and also conquered western Asia-minor. Then there was Mohamed Ali, who held power for 43 years – the longest in modern Egyptian history. He is said to have introduced the country to modernity.”
Ibrahim then asked: “Now we have Hosni Mubarak who’s ruled for almost 30 years. What has he done?”
The lecture hall fell silent.
Mubarak’s most ardent critics herald the day when the president will exit the country’s political scene.
“I don’t think Mubarak did a single good thing for Egypt,” says Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger and journalist.
“He will be remembered as the man who gave state security forces unprecedented power to detain and torture thousands of Egyptians under [the] martial law that he imposed.
“He will be remembered as the man who faithfully served America and remained an obedient servant in exchange for $1.5bn a year.
“He will be remembered as the man who unleashed thugs against independent judges in the streets of Cairo and squandered the resources of his nation on white elephant projects.”
‘Son of the people’
|Many Egyptians worry about the changes the 2011 elections may bring [Makary]|
But not everybody feels the same and many ordinary Egyptians refer to their president by the nickname ‘ibn il-nas’, meaning ‘son of the people’.
They relate to the president, who came to power without election in 1981 after the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat, as one of them.
“Mubarak is one of us, he came from the bottom up and I respect that,” says Ahmed Abu Khalil, a taxi driver.
According to popular narrative, Mubarak comes from humble beginnings. Born in 1928 and raised in the agricultural governorate of Mounifia, he exhibited a leaning toward the military after graduating at the top of his class at Egypt’s Air Force Academy.
Abu Khalil, however, did not make it past elementary school and has lived in Boulaq, a poor Cairo district, his whole life.
Now with a family of four, he claims to make up to $80 a month in a country where the minimum wage of $6 has been left unchanged since 1984.
“I don’t understand why people keep saying Mubarak is such a bad president,” he says.
“In fact, I think he’s a great president. He’s managed to keep things at a lull and that’s what Egypt needed after all these major transformations that Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat brought about.
“Thank god I can afford to feed my family, pay my bills, or buy medicine when I need it. What more could I ask for? Life doesn’t have to be so complex when your needs are so few.”
But Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger, does not agree that Egypt’s needs are few.
“From the break down of the Soviet Union to the fall of the Berlin Wall, protests in Tiananmen Square that brought the collapse of communist regimes, to several Asian countries becoming global economic tigers – like Egypt, all these places had suffered from a history of tyranny and oppression, but they were still able to make something of themselves,” Abbas says.
“But for whatever reason, Mubarak stood still as the world moved on after the day he became president. He took precious time away from Egypt to realise its potential.”
Shadi Hamid, the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Centre, believes that Mubarak’s failings are not limited to his domestic policies.
“His whole regional approach has largely been a failure. Egypt has been eclipsed from mediation in the Middle East and the fact that she’s been upstaged by a country as small as Qatar is quite an embarrassment – surely that’s one thing he’ll be remembered for.”
Abbas maintains that increasing signs of discontent on the streets of Cairo do not mean that the country is on the verge of a revolution.
“You see, the Mubarak regime has gradually injected Egypt’s population with sedatives,” he says.
“Two generations have gone by since he became president so technically, they’ve been inebriated till they’re too numb to know that what they’re going through is actually unacceptable.”
Setting the stage
|The minimum wage in Egypt has remained the same since 1984 [Makary]|
But, NDP member Ashraf Naguib, who also directs The Private Sector Think Tank, a Cairo-based forum on global economic policy that encourages Egypt’s youth to participate in the political process, disagrees with Mubarak’s critics.
“He [Mubarak] has set the stage for change, and the responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the young and upcoming generations to follow in his footsteps of reform and change; an opportunity which we as young Egyptians are being afforded,” he says.
“President Mubarak is known as the man who has put us on that path for change. Free elections came in his era; freedom of speech is evident during his leadership, and we all should take the time to follow in his legacy for a better Egypt.
“Here in Egypt we have the caliber of ministers and officials whom all understand the pace with which both our economic and political reform needs to be implemented, no matter how long it takes, and the door has been opened for upcoming and younger generations to play an active role in our nations future.”
With a population of more than 80 million, Naguib says opposition and dissatisfaction is inevitable, but that “the only way [to] change the system is by joining it and then changing things from within”.
He says: “How else can we produce positive results without recognising the framework that already exists? These are our tools – let’s use them.”