A friend who is back from Cairo says that everything is normal in that city. There are a few crowds in the so-called Liberation Square but they disappear in the night and reappear in the morning. The Square was always a shabby affair, like everything else in Cairo, but it is now shabbier than ever.
And what about Hosni Mubarak, I asked him. He doesn’t look as if he is ready to go. My friend says that Arab leaders are used to such things because they have a long tradition in running their countries as if they owned them, and people are used to them. Mubarak will certainly go away, mainly because of pressure from the Americans, but the Americans are not greatly worried either. They too are past masters in handling dictators, through whom they have been ruling this part of the world for decades. Mubarak is their man-he receives millions of dollars a year from them and is therefore beholden to them-but so do many others. Egypt is essentially an American Colony, just like Israel, and nothing happens in these countries unless the Americans want it. If Mubarak goes, and it is a big if, somebody else will take his place, and that somebody will soon be on American payroll, just like Mubarak, and things will go on, much as they have done since 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and became Egypt’s dictator.
I was almost an eye-witness to the Nasser coup. Almost, because, I was in Cairo a few months before it happened and missed it. I was returning from London by Air-India after completing my studies and our plane landed in Cairo, as all planes did those days. There was also some trouble with the plane – Air-India is always in trouble – and we had to mark time in Cairo for three days. This was a few months before the Nasser coup, but we had no idea Egypt was about to make history.
We whiled away time in an old colonial type hotel, which was said to be the best in Cairo, just like Taj Mahal in Bombay. One evening we saw King Farooq – who was not yet thirty years old at the time – at the poolside cavorting with dancing girls and drinking champagne. He was surrounded by burly body guards, some with curved scimitars, others with stenguns, ready to pounce on strangers like us, who simply could not believe their eyes. Three months later, Farooq was dethroned and sent packing to London, and Nasser and his buddies took over. That is how it all started.
Things never really change in the Arab world. I always get the impression, whenever I visit an Arab country, including places like Dubai, which I hate, that the Arabs are still living in the 18th or 19th centuries, with, of course, more money than they really need, and who do not have the faintest idea how the modern world functions. Why would they still have monarchies or sheikhs in the first place? When they do not have kings, they have dictators, who function like kings, Hosni Mubarak is not President of Egypt; he is actually, king of Egypt. He is supposed to be the richest man in the world, with most of his cash in Swiss vaults, and the Egyptians know that he has been looting them right and left. But they are either helpless, or do not know how to get rid of him. I have, in fact, strong doubts whether they really want to get rid of him. For Mubarak has become like an old shoe, very comfortable, though faded and a little torn, but serviceable. I have a feeling that, if a poll were taken today, most Egyptians, particularly the old ones, would vote for him, in preference to “democratic” leaders.
If Mubarak goes, the country that will be affected the most will be the United States of America. He is their man, they have fed him and financed him all these years, and, if he goes America will have to find another like him, just as they have done in Pakistan. Egypt is a US Colony, just like Pakistan, and Mubarak was their puppet, just like Asif Ali Zardari and, before him, Pervez Musharraf.
This explains the cautious nature of reaction from the United States, and from Barack Obama particularly, who made much of his famous address in Cairo a couple of years ago in which he made a plea to Arab nations to forget the past and make a new beginning in their relations with the West. Nothing much came of that address and nothing is likely to come, as long as the Arabs live in the 18th century and the rest of the world in the 21st. This is true not only of America but also of India.
In my view, India should not give too much importance to what is happening in Egypt – and is likely to happen in other Arab (or Islamic) countries – because the more things change in that world, the more they remain the same. For the Arabs relate everything to the dim past of the birth of Islam, and not to the modern world. Even as late as the end of the last World War, that is 1945, the Arab world was so primitive that very few took much notice of it. But oil has now made all the difference. The world has to be very cautious about Arabs, because of their supremacy in the oil industry. This is why even the Americans have to think twice before dealing with the post-Mubarak world. As I said, the man or men who might follow Mubarak might be worse than Mubarak. This is what happened in Iran, where a deadly Khomeini replaced the Shah and took that country back a few centuries. This is also what happened in Libya when a madman replaced the previous incumbent. This may happen also in Iraq where a fanatic Shia leader called Sadr is waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum left by the departing Americans. And throughout the Arab world, and also outside the Arab world, the Taliban is waiting, like a wolf licking its tongue, not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are in worse shape than Egypt.
Let us not, therefore, count our chickens before they are hatched. Dictators come and dictators go, and one dictator is no different from another. The Muslim world can be genuinely democratic only when it embraces the 21st century. And it is only when it turns genuinely democratic that it can get rid of its dictators and other thugs and get down to running its societies the way they should in this modern world, until then, one should keep one’s fingers crossed!