Americans must wonder why Egypt’s president does not understand what seems obvious to so many of us: that he should step down now and thereby help bring Egypt’s crisis to an end. Mubarak gave his own explanation yesterday to ABC News: “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.”
Having been in a great number of meetings with Mubarak during the Bush years, I believe I know what he’s thinking. Mubarak is not a thief like Tunisia’s Ben Ali or a vicious murderer like Saddam Hussein, and refuses (until now, anyway) to leave because he actually believes what he told ABC. His view has two components. The first is that Egypt is a tinder box, not today but every day. He has never viewed Egypt, not for one day during his three decades of power, as a stable country. I can recall his reaction to small incidents like a demonstration of workers here or there, a strike, or a protest over bread prices. He saw these not as minor annoyances but as dangerous moments, and rushed to provide subsidies for prices and send in police reinforcements. The cork could pop out of the bottle at any time, he seemed to think. He genuinely believes that absolute chaos would result if he stepped aside.
The second component is his view that Arabs must be ruled with an iron hand. This was his practice in Egypt and his repeated recommendation to Americans for Iraq; he thought Iraq could only be governed by a tough-minded general, the same formula he obviously liked and lived for Egypt. The choice for Arab lands was a tough general, a clever king, or chaos. None of this nonsense about democracy, not in the Arab world. In this he took the view that President Bush abandoned in his Freedom Agenda– that the Arab world was not and would never be ready for democracy. If there was ever a proponent of “Arab exceptionalism,” it was Hosni Mubarak. To him these were the sole places on earth where freedom had to be kept at bay.