Forced retirement is a frequently traumatic, ever-present danger in politics, writes William Dowell. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh ran a ritual foot race, part of the jubilee Heb Sed, to demonstrate his fitness to rule and imagined powers of rejuvenation. Failure by a ruler, who claimed god-like powers, could be fatal, not only to the ruler, but to those around him.  Mubarak’s departure, after having lost all credibility with Egypt’s public, invites comparison to those ancient times, yet anyone who has spent time along the Nile knows that the problem is not the man.  

It is in the circumstances of Egypt itself and the system that has forced its population down the road towards a dead end with no easy exit. Anyone who arrives in Cairo for the first time is struck by its immensity, perpetual chaos and physical degeneration.  The first reaction is that the city, and for that matter, the country is unsustainable.  It seems obvious that it can not sustain itself for long, and yet it does.  When I was stationed there in the early 1990s, I spent some time talking with the father of one of my son’s school friends.  He was an engineer for USAID, who had been contracted to look at the city’s sewage system.  “We had been hired to expand the system,” he explained. “In fact, it turned into an emergency rescue operation.”  When the British pulled out of Egypt in 1953, they took all the maps to the water and sewage system with them.  Then the Egyptian military declared its pipelines to be a state secret.  “We couldn’t figure out where any of this stuff was going,” the friend said.  “Finally, what we did was to turn on the pressure and wait for a manhole cover to explode into the air. That’s how we mapped the system.”

Another friend, an architect, who worked on buildings in Cairo’s sprawling ancient Khan al-Khalili souk told me that the shop owners reinforced the walls of their street level shops, but simply let the upper parts of the buildings disintegrate into dust. The owners refuse to make repairs, hioping to drive out the tenants so they can rebuild and charge higher rent. The shop owners make only the repairs they need to in order to stay in business.

Everyone expected Cairo to collapse, but Egyptians are extraordinarily resourceful, and they manage to work out ingenious survival strategies that most people would never think of. I looked out from my balcony one day to see a miniature traditional village on the rooftop of the building next door.  A family had set up a shack on the roof, and wired their TV set into the building’s satellite antenna.  They kept chickens and a rooster, and seemed quite content.

Since Egypt managed to keep going, most foreigners sooner or later disconnected their mental alarm systems. Common sense no longer applied to Egypt.  I realized early on that when the end finally came, it would take all of us by surprise.

What was Mubarak’s role in all of this?  He did not seem like a bad man, at least by standards in the Middle East. Instead, he was a rather unimaginative technocrat, who like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, lacked charisma.   The Egyptians referred to him deriseively as the “Laughing Cow,” partly because his face resembled the red cow on the label of “Le vache qui rit,” a ubiquitous processed cheese, and partly because of his lack of grace and style.  The image was so pervasive that people would go into a grocery store to buy cheese and casually remark, “Give me some Hosni.”   In Arabic, the term was “gebouza,” or a cow, useful, but not especially  known for its brilliance.

Mubarak actually appeared on the scene as an improvement over his predecessors. Just about everyone in Egypt recognized that Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first president, had been a clueless disaster in terms of policy and management.  In economic terms, Nasser destroyed the country.  Emotionally, he caused even more damage.  During the Six-Day War with Israel, he claimed that Israel’s air force and army had been destroyed.  In fact, Egypt’s ill-equipped, uneducated and untrained army had fled the field of battle in such haste that the desert sand was filled with their abandoned combat boots.  From one moment to the next, the country’s dreams of glory and its image of itself, had disappeared in smoke.  Cairo, which had been off limits to the rural population was suddenly overwhelmed by traumatized refugees from the countryside. With the government’s authority and credibility gone, the country was beyond any man’s control.

Yet the Egyptians loved Nasser, but had little or no respect for Sadat, and even less for Mubarak. The reason is that Nasser offered Egyptians a dream of a glorious future, and the Egyptians preferred dreaming to reality.  It is hard to tell what Sadat produced, except for a deal with Israel that had the effect of isolating Egypt from the rest of the Arab world.  Mubarak offered common sense, but without imagination. “Eloquence is important to Arabs,” a diplomat explained to me in Cairo. “Mubarak speaks Arabic like a truck driver.”

Still Mubarak quietly managed to steer the country in the direction of modernization.  His real problem was that it was too little and too late, and Egypt’s population was growing so quickly that it absorbed any improvements and still managed to lag behind.  It’s government officials appeared for work, drank tea, collected their pittance of an official salary, and then left their offices to do their real jobs on the grey market just to have enough money to live.  The Egyptians had inherited a colonial management system from the British, and they endeavored to keep it running without ever asking themselves whether it still made sense or was appropriate.  Egypt’s great writer, Naguib Mafouz, describes a government bureaucrat in his novel, “Small Talk on the Nile.”  The bureaucrat is filling out a lengthy report, but halfway through it his pen runs out of ink. He continues writing anyway, and turns in the report with half the pages blank. When his superior asks him about the blank pages, the bureaucrat snaps back that he respected all the margins, so where is the complaint.  I encountered a somehwat similar situation with the ministry of environment.  All of Ciario at the time was covered with a thin layer of dust that emanated from the cement plants in Helwan down the Nile from Cairo.  “We have electrostatic filters that can take out the dust, but we don’t turn them on, ” the then minister of the environment told me. I asked why not?  “It’s too expensive,” he explained, “and we don’t know what to do with the dust that we filter out.”  Instead of incurring the cost, the government effectively parceled it out to everyone living in Cairo.   It is not hard to understand why, at least as far as Egypt’s bureaucracy was concerned, practically nothing worked.

Some friends of mine flew to Cairo because they thought it would be a cool place to get married. They waited for six months to get a license. Finally, while waiting in the government administration building they causally looked out a window at the courtyard. They saw a flurry of government forms floating out from windows and collecting in anonymous heap on the ground.  They finally abandoned the idea, and then decided that they didn’t really want to get married after all.  When my wife, who is Belgian, applied for a permanent visa to the US, she had to supply reports on her good conduct from police departments in every country that we had lived in—except Egypt.  A brief paragraph on the form indicated that even the US State department had given up on Egyptian record keeping and considered it hopeless.

The Egyptians themselves often seemed to favor a slightly surrealistic vision of life. At one point there was a suggestion that the government respect all three religious holidays, Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians. The country would essentially reduce itself to a four-day week.  Finally a newspaper ran a headline: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

In this seemingly ungovernable chaos, life under Mubarak developed into parallel countries.  The army, which had huge manpower as a result of the earlier efforts at challenging Israel, developed into a privileged elite.  As the only disciplined organization in the country it developed into a manageable society of its own.  It had its own schools, hospitals, clubs and eventually its own industries.  A retired general explained to me that if you wanted to train an illiterate villager to be a truck driver, service in the army was the way to go. In fact, the general suggested, the army was the key to training everyone in the country on all aspects of life.  I found the logic a bit suspect, but I could see how a member of Egypt’s current establishment might go for it.  The problem was that the military increasingly distanced itself from the real life of the country.  The editor of the magazine I was working for flew into town for a quick survey of what was going on.  I arranged an interview with the mayor of Cairo.  We talked about some of the new construction.  The mayor, who lived in Heliopolis, a luxurious neighborhood inhabited by the wealthy, explained that an environmentally conscious new law required that new buildings could not be higher than the distance separating them from the building next door.  I was a bit taken aback by that. “What about the 40-story building that has just gone up in Zamalek?” I asked. “What 40-story building?” the mayor asked in surprise.  “Is there a 40-story building in Zamalek?”  You could see it out the window of his office. “It’s half finished,” I said. “It’s been there for three or four years.”  He asked his aide if that were true. The aide confirmed it.  You are the mayor of this city, I thought, and you can’t even see what is in it.

But despite my skepticism, Army officers wore crisp uniforms and they appeared credible even to their fellow Egyptians.  They had managed to carve out a functional sub-society for themselves and for the most part they left the rest of the country to fend for itself.

The army, understandably, had little time or interest in Egypt’s intellectual class.  Intellectuals were allowed and even encouraged to philosophize on aspects of life, except those that concerned the actual circumstances in which they were living, and as long as they did not attempt to form any coherent political challenge to the military elite that held power. The illusion was that Cairo was intellectually vibrant and creative.  From a political point of view, however, it had been lobotomized.

Most intellectuals that I met in Cairo went along with the silent understanding.  But it probably went even further than that.  Egyptians have a love of social harmony, and they love their country.  Some of my friends apologized for another friend who was a wildly talented artist.  His work shocked them, even though they loved it.  Egyptians were not into pushing the envelope, and not into social change.  I did a series of short films for PBS in America on Cairo’s environment. One sequence showed a child in a beautiful pink dress, picking through garbage on the banks of a canal.  “You showed the ugliness of Cairo,” a friend said. “We do not want to see that. We love this country.”

One of my wife’s friends, a well-connected young architect, wanted to impress her, so he invited us to an exclusive club on the banks of the Nile.  I listened absent-mindedly, scanned the threadbare attempts at luxury and then looked out across the river.  Suddenly the friend’s discourse was drowned out by a large plopping sound.  I looked down.  A large pipe was disgorging feces into the river.

If the government that Hosni Mubarak had inherited had had one failing it was to see any attempt at political organization as a challenge to official power.  Neighborhoods became garbage dumps because the government lacked the funds to clean them, and because it would not allow neighborhood organizations to take on that role because it might point to the government’s incapacity to deal with the problem.  While I was there a minor earthquake, 5.5 on the Richter scale, shook the city.  Normally, it would have been nothing more than an annoyance. It sounded like a subway train passing under the building where I was.  But construction in Cairo was so fragile that a number of buildings collapsed.  The government had no idea of how to react, but local mosques began providing help almost immediately.  The government then issued a directive forbidding the mosques from stepping in.  Rescue was the exclusive domain of the government, and it was incapable of reacting.  The intellectuals I knew acknowledged the ridiculousness of it all, but they remained silent. The American obsession with Islamic extremism provided the government with the excuse it needed to explain away reactions to its incompetence.  In Fayoum, south of Cairo, there was an outbreak of attacks on Coptic Chritsian jewelry stores by young thugs attached to local mosques.  In fact, the government administration had simply not been present enough, and the mosques had taken on the responsibilities of local government. The robberies were used to finance their activities.  When Cairo finally awaked to what was happening, it dispatched police to shoot the gangs. That turned the confrontation into clan warfare. The local clans against the police.  It had nothing to do with Islam, but US paranoia provided a convenient excuse for explaining the problem to Washington.  Suddenly, everything could be tracked back to a kind of mythical Islamic extremism.  Extremists existed of course, and the publicity that they gained from being attacked by the government enhanced their credibility with a frustrated population.  Just in case the budding Islamic movement failed to get a foot hold on its own, the secret police, the Mukhabarat, periodically cast out its net to arrest anyone it suspected of being a dissident.  Inevitably it tortured and mistreated hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent victims, effectively turning both the victims and their extended families into supporters of the opposition.

When I finally left Cairo for a  re-assignment to Hong Kong, I took a battered taxi to the airport.  “Leaving,” the driver said as the antique car limped along sputtering billowing gray fumes from its exhaust. “I hope so,” I said somewhat apprehensively.  “Nothing in Cairo works,” the taxi driver said. “I have noticed that,” I said.  “But, you know, it doesn’t really matter,” said the driver.  “I am not so sure about that,” I said.

I went back to Cairo a year or so ago. There was an influx of money from the Gulf, a few more luxury hotels had sprung up, and a new traffic tunnel shortened the pilgrimage to the airport, but much of the city looked just as chaotic as it always had.

What had changed, however, was that a younger generation was beginning to come on line. The communications revolution might not be able to lead a political revolution, but it had equipped youth with enough information to realize that there were other options out there.  The irony is that this is what Mubarak had sought when he tried to modernize the country.  He wanted his people to move forward, and Egypt’s youth had done just that.  In contrast to their educated parents who knew which lines not to cross, this new Egyptian youth had decided to take their destiny into their own hands. They were no longer prepared to watch their future fade away in silence.  Mubarak saw himself as the father of his country, and he was beginning to learn what all fathers experience: when you succeed in your ambition to create a new, better generation, the payback is that you no longer matter, and in fact have become a hindrance to what it is that you originally thought that you wanted to accomplish.  The lesson is one that the pharaohs learned in their time and is engraved in stone in the pyramids: letting go is never easy.