Saturday, February 26, 2011

The next horizon

Byline by M J Akbar: The next horizon

If I had to shortlist the best journals of the English-speaking universe, the Economist would certainly be at the top of a short and thin pyramid. Insight, interpretation, information and the quality of writing make it a perfect companion; even the British tendency to surrender before the pun “‘The buys from Brazil”, “The Middle Blingdom”...] is more endearing than irritating. But even the most thoughtful commentators of the present can find the future beyond their vision. The 19 February issue of the magazine has a cover story on the Arab awakening. On page 71 is a house-ad for the Democracy Index prepared by its Economist Intelligence Unit for 2010. It concludes that democracy is in worldwide retreat. Even the most perceptive observers can miss a tsunami. After all, the great wave travels under the surface.

It is not entirely foolish to suggest that 2010 is separated from 2011 by a decade or more. Time does not always travel at the same pace. The anger that has lit the Arab streets has been burning below the skin and inside the mind for at least a decade and in many cases far longer. In fact the length of the fuse is evidence of the time that the despots had to take corrective action, but did nothing since they were lost in their own greed, conceit and that ultimate sin of madmen, a sense of indispensability. Muammar Gaddafi sounds genuinely hurt at the thought that Libyans want him and the lurid pests that constitute his family out of their lives. The rest of us did not know whether to laugh or cry when Gaddafi compared himself to Queen Elizabeth, but he was genuinely puzzled. He was no longer a 28-year-old army officer who had rid Libya of a monarchy; he had become the founder of a dynasty for which every Libyan had to be eternally grateful. His mirror told him that he was on his way to martyrdom; he could not recognise the hell he had created for his people. He must believe, therefore, that his murderous mercenaries are fighting some sort of holy war in his defence. He always lived a few steps outside reality. He has now stepped into the comfort zone of lunacy. Neither his region nor the world can afford his survival in office.

An interesting pattern has emerged in the Arab turmoil. Monarchs are proving more durable than dictators. This cannot be only a consequence of personality; nor is blue-blood impervious to the temptation of venality. Kings are rediscovering the power of tradition; unlike a Hosni Mubarak or a Ben Ali or a Gaddafi, they represent something much older than themselves. It is possible for a king to reconcile himself to the republican spirit; and if Arab dynasts understand that they have the option of peaceful transition to popular rule, they can still squeeze some shelf life out of the demands of historical change. Europe is flush with royalty in designer clothes because both princes and their people have learnt to appreciate the value of a constitutional monarchy. A sensible monarch understands the tactile strength of soft hands. Royals, exceptions apart, take far more care about popular sensibilities than civilian dictators; they have had power for so long that they know that the easiest way to lose it is by letting it go to their heads. The price of such folly is, of course, losing your royal head.

It was ever thus. Britain welcomed the coup by Oliver Cromwell, and the fall of Charles II’s head. But when Cromwell decided that his son could become his successor, he learnt that there were limits to British tolerance. Britain cheered the restoration of royalty, but rejected the imposition of a false line on a virtual throne. The rage on the street should persuade Arab monarchs to understand both their peril and their opportunity. There is one serious potential obstacle, however; the advice of a too-clever-by-half courtier who will suggest that the palace can buy time by throwing meaningless tidbits to the people. That option is over. The people have changed, many far beyond their wildest expectations. Armies and bureaucracies have changed. The Arab world has changed. The past is dead. Its memory can be included in the mosaic that is being constructed, step by step, to fashion a new future; but it cannot be revived. The palace can still co-exist with Parliament, but its primacy has been smashed. It can cooperate in nation-building but cannot control it. Its word can serve as suggestion; it cannot be law. The law must shift to the legislature, as in any system that is of the people, by the people and for the people.

All of us missed the horizon last year. That horizon is now amidst us. We must open our eyes to the next horizon, taking shape before us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The valet knows it all

Byline by M J Akbar: The valet knows it all

No man, it is well known, is a hero to his valet. Nor is he much good before his dentist. You become vulnerable, in other words, when you either reveal too much or too little. The valet sees you waddle and slop out of the bath, bellowing for attention; and it doesn't matter if you plug on a cigar, step into office and turn into a Winston Churchill. The dentist sees only one dimension, the wince and aborted shriek at the plunge of pain. A dentophobic patient could well become a battlefield hero when a higher calling makes pain irrelevant.

A press conference can become, at its worst, a root canal drilling by a posse. Most press conferences emerge out of compulsion, not desire. The big question has to be answered, however, by the patient rather than a dentist: what do you do about the decayed tooth? The easy answer is to dull the pain with palliatives and carry on.

Dr Manmohan Singh is no longer a Prime Minister led by his party. The switch came in his first term, when he forced his hesitant party to follow him on the Indo-US nuclear deal. He was ahead of the Congress even on Pakistan policy. This was confirmed in the general election when he got equal space on the hoardings. Obviously he consults his party president Mrs Sonia Gandhi on crucial issues, but their relationship is far more equal than it was when she named him the surprise Prime Minister of the decade.

But there is one political arena in which he has to bow before the party's decisions: survival of his government. It is the party which decides how far to strain the nerves that hold a disparate coalition together. The slightest disarray would unravel the government. The party cannot afford a midterm general election just in order to preserve Dr Singh's image of financial integrity.
Dr Singh understands politics, but cannot get himself to indulge in the political language needed to roll around a crisis caused by blatant and possibly unprecedented levels of corruption. His nature drags him perilously close to the epicentre, and facts can be injurious to the health of a Prime Minister since he has, of course, been forced to compromise. He used the term "coalition compulsions" but those compulsions are not about the individual who has been thrown into jail because of the telecom scandal, A. Raja.

Raja is the front office boy; the problem is the DMK. The DMK made telecom its private property long before Raja became Cabinet minister with the help of corporate honchos awaiting extraordinary pay-offs for their deals with him. The DMK has milked telecom with a consistency that must generate tears of envy from middlemen. Raja, at best, kept a percentage of the loot; most of the money was taken by the party and members of the Karunanidhi family. Raja is the sacrifice thrown by the patriarch to the mob. His allotted destiny is to be the fall guy and keep his mouth shut, mafia-style, or there will be consequences. The problem is not Raja the individual, but DMK the institution. That is the tension that will test Dr Manmohan Singh. Karunanidhi is being economical with the truth when he claims that he cannot remember receiving a handwritten letter from Ratan Tata praising Raja as the finest thing to happen to telecom since Alexandar Graham Bell. Nor are any disbursements made to the extended family without his permission.

The Congress has sent Raja to prison, ordered a CBI raid on Kalaignar TV [owned by the Karunanidhi clan] and hinted that Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi could be summoned for interrogation. It has also announced that it will ally with the DMK in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. That does not seem like a powerful denunciation of corruption. But it is explicable in terms of political survival. If the Congress fought the elections alone it would end up in desolate territory akin to its Bihar results. The trade-off is flexibility in the campaign against corruption, but the Prime Minister used his press conference to suggest that he would be as hard as the law permitted. The CBI moved at his direction.

Key questions: how far can the CBI rush around without toppling the applecart? Those apples are high value. The CBI will hear names from those it is interrogating. It will act against the private sector with much display, but what about the politicians who live too close to the bone?

Is the answer to this paradox another paradox? The Congress would obviously like to repeat its alliance victory in Tamil Nadu, but could the way out lie in defeat? A re-elected DMK would blackmail the coalition at the Centre; a defeated DMK would be more compliant in Chennai and more obedient in Delhi.

Being a hero is not easy, particularly when your valet is on the take.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Talk of the Town

Talk of the Town
By M J Akbar
ByWord in India Today
February 18, 2011

There is one commodity that is inflation-proof even in India's most expensive city, Delhi. Talk is cheap in the capital, available at every cafe and inside every drawing room. But excess of supply should not beguile us into the belief that it is useless. Talk is the barometer of the next political season. Seasons change, at least twice a year. This winter has been cold for the Government; and there was talk that summer might become a bit too warm.

A prime minister does not invite media over for a chat because his principal secretary has told him that he has nothing scheduled that morning. He must have a specific message to convey, particularly when the show is being televised. Dr Manmohan Singh summoned television heads-one or two noticeably burdened by the weight of national responsibility-to ask questions because he wanted one answer to be heard. This primary message was, in essence, simple: he was still in charge; he was still interested in his job; and he was not going anywhere till the next general election in 2014. In his opening remarks he laughed off, or perhaps shrugged off (there is sometimes little to choose between the two with Dr Singh), the suggestion that he was a "lame-duck" prime minister.

But who made this suggestion that the prime minister felt bound to refute? In his first five years, when he was technically more vulnerable, Dr Singh was pretty much the swan on the lake, rather than a hobbled duck. Within 18 months of a re-election which should have energised him with new resolve, Dr Singh was forced to tell the country: "I have to complete this term". Did corrosion begin when in an earlier, similarly publicised press conference, Dr Singh diffidently offered to make way for Rahul Gandhi if asked to do so by his party. A prime minister becomes lame the moment he suggests that he might not be able to walk all the way to the next election. He is instantly a creature of the past, and power splits between him and the representative of the future.

In the last 12 months, Dr Singh has seemed, inexplicably, a prisoner of eddies rather than master of the tide. A viral and vicious undercurrent of corruption has complemented the high storm of inflation. He has been patently helpless about both, unable to act against venality when it was discovered by media under his nose, and making excuses about rising prices rather than finding a solution.

There is no third option in power: either you control events, or events control you. The first threat to a weak prime minister is not the Opposition but the ring of colleagues who circle and wait, wait and circle, timing their moment for the kill. A rump of fairly senior, and therefore ambitious, Congress leaders, including those who are considered, or consider themselves, close to the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi began to orchestrate loud whispers that the prime minister would not survive summer. The discretion implicit in anonymity soon begins to melt as the temperature of ambition begins to rise. As senior a minister as P. Chidambaram recently told an American newspaper that the Manmohan Singh Government was suffering from an ethical and governance deficit. The newspaper obligingly headlined its story "India Ruling Party Ponders Leadership" and told its readers that Chidambaram was "waiting in the wings".

On February 16, Dr Manmohan Singh told Chidambaram to stop waiting. Rahul Gandhi has always been wise enough never to push his claim, but his loyalists surely got the hint: no change before 2014.

There was clarity in the prime minister's message to the Congress; but such clarity began to haze when he spoke to India. The machinations of Delhi are of peripheral interest to a citizen livid at corruption and enraged at inflation. It was inevitable that at least a few of the media persons would question the prime minister's complacency on corruption. It was easy to fudge through a question on 2G since follow-ups were not permitted under house rules. But those who created such rules forgot that the country was tired of fudge. When one guest inevitably pushed for a follow-up, an imperious courtier instructed him not to insult the majesty of the prime minister's position. Such sycophancy by a minion does a disservice to a prime minister whose temperament is averse to confrontation.

Indians are not supine by nature; but they do not waste their strength by putting it on constant display. Every general election is a tribute to their collective muscle. Governments which take Indians for granted, or confuse Delhi with India, are inviting a volcano to erupt. When Delhi talks there is fissure and turbulence. When India talks there will be an explosion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Kuch Nahi Sarkar
By M J Akbar
Byword (In India Today)
February 11,2011

Which was the swivel moment when the Indian-born British citizen shook off his psychological shackles and came into his own? There will probably be as many answers as there are success stories. My personal favourite is the year in which an enterprising Sikh businessman bought out a distillery producing the most sustained, and possibly sustaining, export of the British peoples, Scotch whisky. The breakthrough was not in the financial transaction. Money is the easy part. The revolutionary switch in the balance of power was made when this NRI entrepreneur renamed the Scotch and called it "Kuch Nahi".

You read that correctly. I have neither the imagination nor the gall to make up such a story. I met this enterprising businessman once, nearly a decade ago. When I asked him how he proposed to sell a Scotch with a Hindi appellation meaning "Nothing", he replied with a persuasive, calm conviction that it was the perfect label for his target market of fellow Hindi-speaking Indians. It provided an infallible alibi for anyone snorkelling "Kuch Nahi" at a pub. When the imbiber reached home and his wife asked what he had been up to, he could say with a perfectly straight face, "Kuch Nahi". He could never be accused of telling a lie.

"Kuch Nahi" should be nominated the official drink of the present Union Government. Each time anyone in the "Kuch Nahi Sarkar" is asked what he has been up to, you get the same innocent answer: "Kuch Nahi". Never was a more implausible response offered with such a plausible face.

The Hindu and Business Line exposed the fact that ISRO had made 90 per cent of the spectrum capacity of two satellites, worth an estimated Rs 2 lakh crore, freely available to a private company in January 2005, and top ISRO officials turned up to explain that nothing had actually happened. The Prime Minister's Office piled in to add that since no decision had been taken to allocate this space segment, the question of any revenue loss did not arise. Then they announced that they had cancelled the contract concluded between the ISRO and Devas Multimedia Private Limited on January 28, 2005. Since ordinary mortals like you and I would not be able to distinguish a SBand spectrum from its first cousin in Z-band, or its granduncle in Aband, all we can ask are some simple housewifely questions: If nothing untoward had happened why cancel the contract? Second, what was Devas doing during the six years between the signing of the contract and its cancellation? Surely private sector companies do not sign such huge financial deals in order to lose money, or dawdle.

Contract cancellation is the equivalent of washing your mouth after a heavy night to substantiate that you drank "Kuch Nahi".

Maybe the Maharashtra chief minister's office is jinxed. Sit there for a bit and a corruption charge or two begins to bang heavily on the door. Witness Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan. Prithviraj Chauhan had a perfectly blameless reputation for the five-plus years he was minister of state for space under the prime minister in Delhi. The moment he went to Mumbai, up came ISRO: Chavan was the point man for such decisions.

The foremost "Kuch Nahi" minister of this government is surely former-and-future lawyer Kapil Sibal. Months after India had become convinced that there was "Kuch Hai" in the original Raja spectrum scam (amounting to a mere Rs 1.76 lakh crore, according to CAG, as distinct from circa Rs 2 lakh crore in the ISRO deal), Sibal tried to change the national perception with one dramatic press conference. He took an hour or more to say there was "Absolutely Kuch Nahi" in the Raja case. While the voter cowered under massive legal artillery bombardment, the Government cheered with so much enthusiasm it must have brought a smile on the depressed visage of Raja and elated the heart of his mentor, K. Karunanidhi.

The next thing we know, Sibal's government arrested "Kuch Nahi" Raja on corruption charges and permitted the CBI to take him into custody for interrogation. A corporate honcho who jumped from millionaire to billionaire on the spectrum canvas soon followed him inside. That's a heavy price to pay for "Kuch Nahi". It isn't the usual problem of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing in this Government; the right hand does not know what the right hand is doing, as one acute observer remarked.

Humour within public discourse can be bright, torrid or laboured; the sheer scale and depth of contemporary corruption has given it a bitter, corrosive, dangerous edge. "Kuch Nahi" is no longer a pleasant palliative in a pub. It is black humour, perfectly suited to the age of black money.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt finds its destiny

Byline by M J Akbar: Egypt finds its destiny

Salahuddin Ayyubi, more familiar as Saladin, would have understood what was happening in Cairo 2011 perfectly. When, eight centuries ago, he set out from Damascus to recapture Jerusalem, he headed not towards any Crusader state dotted across the map of Arab Asia, but marched instead to Cairo to destroy the rotting regime that had infected Egypt with smug impotence. Saladin knew, and said, that an Arab victory was impossible without the mobilisation of the heart of the Arab world. The epicentre had shifted from Baghdad with the decay of the Abbasids, and there it lies still. When Europe began its colonisation project, Napoleon headed for Alexandria, for he knew that the strategic route to both Ottoman Constantinople and British India lay through Egypt. When the British decided it was time to intervene, they sent Lord Cromer to Cairo.

When a dictator falls in Cairo, every other Humpty Dumpty gets a nervous breakdown. All the various kings’ horses, and all the many despots’ men, cannot put them together again. It is now a matter of time, and time has shifted its loyalty from dictators to democrats. It is a trifle awkward to quote from one’s own book, but one of the themes of The Shade of Swords [published in 2002] was that most of the Arab world was between 10 to 15 years away from its French revolution. There are, fortunately, no guillotines, because the 21st century has rediscovered the power of Gandhian non-violence as the ultimate mass weapon against the might of the state. There is no blood on the Nile, there is no stain on the Sphinx, and the people are in power in Cairo.

True, transition is still a work in progress. It would be illusory to declare a premature victory. The dust is still rising in Tunisia, where the ancien régime is fighting a rearguard battle to protect what it has seized from the people over so many decades. Such temptations will doubtless be visible in Egypt as well. But if the elites deny Egypt its liberation, then the anger of today will turn into the rage of tomorrow.

For six decades the consistent strain in the Western discourse has been praise for Israel’s democracy, and castigation of the moribund, when not monstrous, dictatorships of the Arabs. This was a valid, if not fully adequate, explanation for the limited economic and social progress among Arabs. Why then is Tel Aviv on the edge, and the West apprehensive at the prospect of this democratic revolution?

Because democracy does not travel alone. It is always accompanied by nationalism. You can have nationalism without democracy, but you cannot have democracy without nationalism. The West does not really fear the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to dictators, since that is a socio-political movement that can be contained in a crunch. It is worried about an explosion of governments that place the people’s interest above that of sectional regimes at home and their mentors abroad. It was this worry that prevented the West from intervening even when dictators looted their own nations. We do not yet know how much Hosni Mubarak salted away in Swiss and other banks, but rumour puts the figure at a staggering high. Details of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s family are public knowledge. The mass of companies owned by his family is evidence of the power of patronage. Most interestingly, his family controlled the banking system. His brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi owned the Bank of Tunisia; his daughter Nesrine had Zitouna Bank and Al Tijari Bank; his second daughter Cyrine owned the Arab International Bank of Tunisia, and his third daughter Ghazoua the Mediobanca. Why go to Switzerland when you have your own bank?

The difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is not very complicated. Governments are vulnerable in the former, but the country is free and stable. Despots seem permanent but under them the nation seethes in below-the-surface turmoil. How long can you keep the lava boiling inside the volcano?

The point may be stretched but is still worth making: is there anything in common between contemporary Cairo and Calcutta? In both cities, one on the knee of the Nile and the other at the foot of the Ganges, the citizen wants the government out after three decades in power. After this the differences begin. The Communists of Bengal have ruled in a democracy, while the Army-backed regime in Cairo has thrived through a cocktail of fear, fraud and ferocity. Cairo’s young cannot trust those who have cheated them for so long, and want change now. Calcutta’s young have no problem whatsoever in waiting for the hour appointed by the Election Commission. There is no need for a jasmine uprising. A democracy is a continuous peaceful political revolution.

Egypt has found its destiny and its destiny will change the world around it.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The collapse of a lie

Byline by M J Akbar: The collapse of a lie

Nothing, goes the maxim, clears the head faster than the sight of a noose. This is true for ordinary mortals like you and me. Despots intoxicated by the hallucination of indispensability are either puzzled or terrified by the notion that power is finite. Their cronies have always told them otherwise. Their palaces have insulated them from the street. The international order did business without the whisper of a question. Why bother?

Dictatorships are arrangements between elites. They begin, as in Hosni Mubarak’s case, as a lottery windfall. He would have retired into obscurity as a nondescript general with a few silly gongs on his breast if Anwar Sadat had not been assassinated by a soldier at a parade. [Since then, parading units do not carry live ammunition; which saved Rajiv Gandhi’s life during his visit to Colombo when all the man in uniform at the airport could do was attack India’s Prime Minister with a rifle butt.] Mubarak began his rule with a lie, promising democracy while he rearranged the instruments and institutions that would keep him in power for three decades. He is trying to hold on with yet another lie, the promise to go quietly in September.

The Army has provided the operative muscle to Mubarak, but from some distance, since it is a conscription force and does not want to lose its connect with the citizen. The bureaucracy pushed the files and picked up benefits. Media read from the Mubarak script and fawned over intermediaries of the palace. Foreigners swam in the Sharm el Sheikh and gasped at the treasures of King Tut.

It was a different story for the people. Fear was the toxic smog over Mubarak’s Egypt. It was not the menacing black that darkened Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from horizon to horizon. Mubarak was too Egyptian to be that crass. But an unmistakeable haze of threat overshadowed you the moment you stepped outside proscribed limits. The proscribed lines were not cultural. You cannot have tourism as your principal wage-earner and ban bikinis or bars. Limits applied to the engagement between citizen and authority.

Deviants, particularly anyone asking for human or political rights, were punished by prison. Democracy was dismissed as an invitation to chaos. The first alibi of Mubarak remains the last alibi of Mubarak. He is still trotting out this nonsense to the pitiful few who will listen. Perhaps he has actually begun to believe this rubbish. It is axiomatic that a despot must have contempt for his own people since he cannot trust them with collective common sense. Dissidents who became insistent, or those who dared to organise secular opposition, were picked by the dreaded Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, uninhibited by a compromised judicial service. The purpose was not merely to annihilate the victim but also send a chilling message to anyone foolish enough to believe in change. In the last decade, it was not only Mubarak who loomed over the nation, but his son Gamaal, whose sole qualification lay in his genes.

It suited Mubarak to tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood (within parameters of course) as the only Opposition. He could point to them as the alternative and ask the West to choose. America and Europe convinced themselves that the emasculation of the Egyptian people was a price worth paying for Israel’s security. Once Egypt’s ruling class had been neutralized Palestine’s dream of an independent state remained just that, a dream. The US-sponsored Cairo-Tel Aviv deal maintained the status quo between existing nation states, and their dynastic regimes, but eroded Palestinian space tree by tree, orchard by orchard, yard by yard, settlement by settlement, year after year. It was the perfect trap.

That trap has been sprung open. Mubarak could not do two things, the first of which was arguably less dangerous for him than the second. He could not ban the Muslim congregational prayer every Friday. This became the public meeting of thousands of communities, united in reverence to God, but increasingly sceptical of the man who had imposed his authoritarian regime in Cairo. It is not an accident that the namaaz has become a recurring symbol of protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Nor could Mubarak censor Egyptian humour. The joke became a potent weapon of resistance. The Mukhabarat was helpless. A joke has no author. How do you send Mr Anonymous to jail? Laughter ripped apart Mubarak’s credibility during the long fallow years, until one sudden day it evolved into mass anger.

A state has many advantages in a confrontation with the people. It can twist the law under the pretext of maintaining order, even when it is the principal cause of disorder. A despot has even more advantages, because he is not in the least bothered by legitimacy: after all, a coup is an illegitimate birth. He can provoke violence and then cite violence as the predicted symptom of chaos. This is the final throw of Mubarak’s loaded dice.

A dictator has many routes back to square one. The people have only one road towards their horizon of democracy. They need heroes for the struggle is uneven. Egypt is trembling. If the people fail, the nation will fall into a dangerous abyss.

The Sphinx and the Mahatma

The Sphinx and the Mahatma
By M J Akbar

Byword (Third Eye)in India Today
February 5, 2011

This is yet another Gandhian moment in world history, with implications nearly as momentous as the collapse of the British Raj at the Gateway of India. Egypt has rediscovered itself through the alchemy of non-violence, once dismissed as limp romanticism in the muscular age of colonial empires. Non-violence detached the mightiest empire ever known from its central mooring, India, initiating a process that liberated Afro-Asia from European colonisation in the 20th century. The irresistible power of courageous commitment and peaceful mobilisation is wresting destiny from the vicious grip of neo-colonisation in the 21st century; Egypt is the key. Hosni Mubarak, sustained in office by a collusion between a local military establishment and foreign powers long after he had become a figure of ridicule, knows what to do about bombs and bullets. But he is impotent before the calm conviction of his own people. Gandhi, in that sense, has become the philosophical mentor of freedom from both the emperor and dictator in the arc between the Nile and the Ganges.

Jawaharlal Nehru once said that Gandhi's greatest contribution was not the liberation of India from the British but the liberation of Indians from fear. The second had to precede the first. Fear of the Raj disappeared, Nehru said, during the great Non-Cooperation, or Khilafat, Movement between 1919 and February 1922. Fear finally began to retreat in Egypt when a 26-year-old woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, posted a video of herself on the Net with a simple message: "Do not be afraid."

Mahfouz was not born when Mubarak came to power 30 years ago. And, judging by the talk in the Cairo establishment, she could have become an old woman before Mubarak's designated successor, his son Gamal, passed on. This and similar pockets of resistance culminated in the January 25 mass demonstration in Tahrir Square that shifted the balance of power in Egypt and the whole of the Arab world. The era of corruption, dynasty, misgovernment, and the conversion of national wealth into private property in the name of stability is ebbing. The day the Egyptian army announced that it would not fire a single bullet upon its own people, power switched sides, even if the coming days indicate aberrations.

Those who are looking for answers miss the point: the questions have changed. The Sphinx at the foot of the Giza pyramid is in Liberation Square with a smile on its face, telling anyone in need of clarity: It is not whether Mubarak will go, but when. A man trapped in his palace because there is an image of a noose at the door cannot rule a country.

Deceit and delusion are the natural characteristics of dictators. Mubarak forgot that he belonged to Egypt; he slipped into the hallucination that Egypt belonged to him. Having been slapped awake, he has begged for time; but the street remembers that he promised democracy three decades ago and destroyed any hope of its arrival.

The silly notion that there is no one in the Opposition to replace Mubarak is another tired excuse. How can there be an Opposition leader when Egypt has never had democracy? The first item on the agenda of despots is generally the annihilation, through prison or death, of any opposition. They tend to congratulate themselves when they register 98 per cent of the vote in a rigged election. They forget a decisive law of public life: when there is no opposition party, the people become the opposition. Both position and opposition will begin when Mubarak vacates space.

The last alibi of dynasts-after me, the deluge!-has been heard before and will prove equally futile this time around. Thanks to the intervention of Europe's great powers, the Bourbons survived the French Revolution, but the revolution had achieved its purpose. It changed France. The guillotine has-thank you, Gandhi-disappeared. But the passion has not. Egypt rose on January 25 from a deep and poisonous swamp that had sucked its vitality; to drive it back under a hail of bullets would destroy the central bastion of the Arab world.

Despots survive because they are servile to their masters abroad and contemptuous of their own people at home. They deny democracy because they are convinced that their citizen is incapable of self-rule and needs a patriarch armed with a secret service that can brutalise the dissident and instruments of state that can lure the people into a zone of false comfort. It is utterly preposterous and humiliating to suggest that Arabs with their proud history, culture and sophistication, do not deserve democracy. The confrontation in Egypt could yet turn ugly, because the establishment has too much to lose. The countdown might take its time, but it has begun.