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.