Thursday, June 7, 2012

In defense of Hosni Mubarak

Now that I’ve caught your attention, let me hasten to add that I have no intention of defending Egypt’s former president. The old despot was corrupt and thoroughly deplorable. For decades, Mubarak turned his security services against his own population. His legacy, in most respects, was one prolonged serving of national cretinism.

And yet, when we compare Mubarak or his equally sinister onetime counterpart from Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, with the likes of Bashar Assad and Moammar Gadhafi, there are differences. It may be useful to examine these differences more closely to see if they can be of benefit as Arab societies strive to reimpose civil structures on what had been (and in some cases still are) authoritarian orders.

Mubarak and Ben Ali were thugs, but they were not mass murderers. The Egyptian president stepped down before unleashing – or more likely because he was incapable of unleashing – the army against protesters in January 2011. Ben Ali took to the clouds, his stolen goods firmly in hand. Both were undeniably responsible for the deaths of innocents, and Mubarak’s conviction last week was nothing if not fair; but they did not butcher their populations and provoke civil wars to stay in office in the same way that Gadhafi did and Assad is doing.

Why is that? Most probably because of the fact that Egypt and Tunisia are traditionally countries of institutions, where the structures of state and society, for all their myriad shortcomings, extend beyond the supreme leader and his clan. Many of these institutions were co-opted by Mubarak and Ben Ali, discredited, intimidated and manipulated; but they also had a prior life of their own, an institutional memory, that the persecutor in chief could never entirely overcome.

When Mubarak sought to install his son Gamal as his successor, something in the Egyptian psyche snapped. This was an ambition too far, reckless hubris by a man who, ultimately, was a mere byproduct of the system, yet who somehow imagined that his 30-year reign entitled him to bend Egypt to his personal preferences.

As protesters took to the streets, Mubarak became a liability to the corporate interests of the military, which had much to lose by protecting the president. It was the army that gave Mubarak the final push, to preserve its stake in the system. There was nothing altruistic about this, even as Egypt’s complex institutional edifice meant that a full-scale massacre was never in the cards. Mubarak was expendable.

If we imagine a continuum of authoritarian systems, they tend to be defined by two extremities. At one extremity are systems where the absolute reference when it comes to the law, or what passes for law, is the leader. At the other are systems built on a scaffolding of regulations and state bodies lending legitimacy to repression. Most authoritarian leaderships combine the two: There are domains controlled by the leader, but there are also those where a judicial veneer is in place to stifle dissent, but also to avoid the inevitable resort to force.

For a long time Syria was such a place. In order to perpetuate his own rule and that of his minority Alawite community, the late Hafez Assad adopted multiple layers of behavior, bureaucracy and ideology to bolster his regime. Arab nationalism, in the guise of Baathism, was there partly to detract from the minority status of the leadership, and to act as an instrument to co-opt large swathes of Syrian society. The conflict with Israel bought the Syrian president Arab credibility and funding, while Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon earned it regional leverage. Syrian prisons were full, but when offered a choice between violence and negotiations to resolve his problems, Assad usually preferred the latter – albeit negotiations destined to assert his will.

And yet there was never any doubt who was the final arbiter on most issues. Syrian institutions had no latitude to question Assad. The army and security apparatus was there to defend the Assads and their political-military clique, not Syrian society. Outside the reach of the ruling family there was virtually no autonomous political space.

Bashar Assad’s mistake was to make this increasingly apparent over the years, even as he alienated his young and impoverished society in other ways. The worst thing a despot can do is to highlight the absoluteness of his supremacy over humiliated subjects. For instance, in Deraa, rather than seek a peaceful solution occasioned by his cousin Atef Najib’s arrest of protesting children, Assad went for his guns. Moammar Gadhafi, similarly, transformed Libya into an extension, a plaything, of his demented, kleptocratic family. When Benghazi rose, his reflex was to threaten carnage. For Gadhafi and Assad, anything short of total submission was existentially dangerous.

Does this tell us something useful about places such as Egypt or Tunisia? To an extent yes, because it affirms that even in degraded political systems, it is yet beneficial to have time-tested institutions in place that can mediate between society and the leadership. Mubarak’s control over the army and judiciary often seemed unlimited, but in retrospect the reality was more complicated. When he departed, both had to face pressures and dynamics imposed on them by society, to which they simply could not respond with unqualified suppression.

The struggle against authoritarianism will be a long one, but civil societies in the Arab world must focus on creating spaces of institutional independence in order to safeguard their liberty. That’s easier said than done, but revolutionary moments allow for such aspirations. There is nothing to regret in Mubarak and Ben Ali. However, they left behind systems easier to reform than Libya’s and Syria’s, and enough survivors for this to happen more serenely.

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