In 1981, hours before he was assassinated, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat famously refused a bullet-proof vest. “I am among my sons,” he said, according to his nephew. He was shot dead by an Islamist marching in a military parade, who was angry about Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. Sadat’s deputy, Hosni Mubarak, sat by his side.
Quickly sworn in following Sadat’s death, Mubarak was no leader of men. He lacked the easy charm of Abdul Nasser, who threw off and defied the British. He lacked the forceful personality and military prowess of Saddat, who triumphed over the Israelis and ushered in a more moderate, western-looking Egypt.
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Dictators cannot survive without the acceptance of the public. And what Mubarak offered the Egyptian people was simple: he would protect them, from the forces that killed his predecessor, and from the machinations of global terrorism.
For a long time, Egypt’s Islamic terrorists kept up enough of a show to make this a desirable promise. The years following Sadat’s assassination saw thousands of Egyptian Islamists thrown in jail, where many were tortured and eventually released as broken men. Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was rounded up with the rest.
Egypt continued to suffer a series of periodic terrorist attacks, mainly on tourists and Copts. But over time, Mubarak’s warning — it’s me or the terrorists — grew less credible.
The Muslim Brotherhood formally renounced violence in the 1970s, and were tolerated to increasing degrees during Mubarak’s later years. And while the party remained illegal, they began to field candidates in local elections, who did well in parts of rural Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood began to operate as a quasi-government in these states, offering social services and the like that the Egyptian state was woefully unwilling or incapable of offering.
[pullquote position=”right”]In Cairo, the middle classes grew weary of Mubarak’s increasing ineptitude and cronyism[/pullquote], and the corruption that meant their children could never aspire to lives as modestly prosperous as those of their parents.
In January 2011, Egypt threw off Mubarak. Many have focussed on the anger that drove this. And it’s true: the revolution was driven by economic concerns, by real and imaged slights, by a feeling of being owed more. But it was also driven by hope.
Hope that, despite its differences and divides, Egypt would pull together. Hope that Egyptians are a reasonable people, not prone to the excesses of their neighbours. Hope that the Muslim Brotherhood had matured, and that the ruling class wanted the best for their country. Hope that the Egyptian military was the friend and arm of the people, distinct from and different to the president.
That hope made Mubarak’s promise no longer of value. And thus, he was toppled.
What has happened in the past two years in Egypt is well known, and led to the quashing of that hope.
During this past week over a thousand Islamists have been gunned down by Egyptian security forces. Seventy churches have been burnt, and the Copts, as they have so often been in recent decades, are afraid. Too many of Egypt’s liberals have averted their gaze, willing to abide what is happening to the Brotherhood as a necessary evil. After all, they argue, the Brotherhood did worse during its months in power.
Rumours I cannot begin to unravel roam the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood are, once again, the terrorists, in need of imprisonment if they are unwilling to renounce their ties. This may or not be true. From my vantage point in inner-city Melbourne, I cannot tell. But what concerns me is the loss of hope. The hope of Egypt was what made the revolution possible. Egypt’s fear is what let the military rule for four decades.
The military says it will transfer power to a civilian government. I hope it will. But the millions who spilled onto Egypt’s streets seeking something better were driven by hope. And there is little hope left in Egypt today.
*This article was first published at Myriam Robin’s blog