Mubarak’s silver bullet

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By Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Hosni Mubarak admitted he was obstinate. Once his mind was made up, he seldom had a change of heart. A close associate is said to have asked, why? Mubarak gave an odd reply.

He said a command from him was a bullet fired from his pistol. Once released, it could not be brought back.

There was an order on his desk dismissing a relatively close aid. One who knew the full circumstances tried to convince him that the alleged offender was not responsible. Mubarak held the pen, prepared to sign the order.

The aid put his hand on the paper, preventing the signature and explained why the alleged miscreant was not responsible. He was out of the country and another man had assumed his duties.

Mubarak acquiesced and rescinded the order.

The anecdote has merit as Mubarak’s trial nears. Throughout his presidency, Mubarak was consumed by his own security. Layer upon layer of police and informers were assembled to listen for any murmur of discontent.

In the last few years, public opinion was measured scientifically to identify the tensions and stresses that could threaten his omnipotent rule. One such was the disruption his travelling in the city caused. Commuters fumed.

It was pointed out to him that by closing off the side streets, the motorcade had no escape route in the event of an ambush. He was assured his limousine was as bullet proof and bomb proof as could be made.

But his obstinate manner rejected any change.

Come the revolution in January he was a captive of his own perversity. He did not believe the people in Tahrir Square were representative of the national mood.

Neither does it appear that he understood the impact of not giving an order. If he’d sent out an order for the police not to fire at demonstrators — if he’d drawn up such a document — it would be an absolute defense to the charge of committing mass murder.

The atmosphere in Mubarak’s office, I’m told, was always soldier-like. Very few civilians were inside the inner circle. Decisions were notated carefully, as is customary among generals. Mubarak, of course was the chief of staff, first among the 18 members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The military supreme council discusses, debates, but releases orders only after a unanimous decision has been made.

It’s important to reflect on this as a new constitution is being considered. The two words liberty and freedom are the pillars of constitutional democracy. The difference between the two is that liberty, according to Aristotle, allows a man to live, as he likes the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave.

Liberty is enshrined in law. The political theorist Hanna Fenichel Pitkin said liberty implies a system of rules — a network of restraint and order.

Freedom, on the other hand, is less constrained and can describe as the feeling of a person unjustly imprisoned, able to manage the situation in the knowledge that one day he will be free, whereas his jailer will continue to be incarcerated in the cell block.

That may be apt in Egypt’s current situation. Do the former rulers want to retain their power, corrupt bureaucrats sitting at the same desks, leopards changing their spots biding their time until they’re pensioned off?

Or are they, as most want, prepared to dump the past and write a new charter.

Listening to a group of leaders of the revolution the other day, they seemed to think that Egypt is not ready to cede many of the powers of the presidency to a parliamentary democracy. I disagree.

On December 10, 1948 Egypt was one of the 48 signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specified in 30 articles the rights to which all human beings inherently are entitled.

The declaration of human rights was required after the abomination of crimes committed by dictators during World War II.

A similar declaration is required in Egypt before the country can move ahead. Pragmatic political decisions can wait a while.

Someone in the presidential palace had the guts to tell Mubarak he’d lost all credibility. Someone escorted him out. History will no doubt reveal the full circumstances and who had the courage to end the carnage, though the debacle continued for some weeks afterwards.

Now what’s needed is the courage to create a new social compact between the government and the governed: one that enshrines the sentiments that were paramount in the establishment of enlightened democracies over the centuries and that have endured turbulence as embroiling as Egypt’s.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.




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