Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 5 February 2011

Will Hosni Mubarak regret his poor sense of timing?

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Cairo

President Hosni Mubarak's speech earlier this week fell short of what many Egyptians are calling for - his imminent departure - and as thousands of anti-government protesters take to the streets, Mr Mubarak continues to hold on to power.

President Mubarak giving a speech during the recent upheaval
Egyptians might have been spared the upheaval had Mubarak spoken earlier

He was late of course.

The link between punctuality and autocracy is one of history's great myths.

Hitler and Mussolini did not actually make the trains run on time any better than their democratic contemporaries. They just created circumstances where only a mad man would complain that they were late.

So when rumours swept Cairo that Hosni Mubarak was going to appear on national television last Tuesday, no-one in Egypt really thought he would make it to the studios on time.

This is, after all, not just a man who has governed his vast country for almost 30 years through a temporary state of emergency, and enforced it with a colossal network of secret police officers, torturers and informers.

It is a man who, in a lifetime as a senior military officer and powerful politician, probably has not personally heard the engaged tone on the telephone, or indeed the word "No" in any circumstances for 50 years.

There is no-one to tell him to get a move on, or to warn him that he is in danger of missing a deadline.

And, in any case, on this particular occasion, Mr Mubarak had every reason to be late.

Dignity and duty

He had been grappling with a strongman's internal dilemma when faced with anger on the streets - a dilemma which boils down to a simple choice: repression or concession.

The message was simple: If Mubarak had to go, he would at least attempt to go with a dignity that he had always denied his political opponents

Mr Mubarak, we know now, has made the mistake lots of autocrats make when they are forced suddenly into making a choice by a sudden eruption of anger on the streets. He has tried a mixture of both.

The problem is that democracy is like virginity. You cannot have a limited amount of it.

So, by the time he made his appearance on television, the Egyptian president's brutal police force had already made one attempt to batter anti-government protesters off the street.

Anti-Government Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo
Egyptians taking part in a "day of departure" rally to try to oust Mubarak

Less than 48 hours later, many of those officers were back in plain clothes making a sustained assault on the protesters.

In between, though, Mr Mubarak appeared on television to tell Egyptians that he would not be leaving office immediately, although he would not be a candidate in this autumn's presidential elections.

The message was simple. If Mubarak had to go, he would at least attempt to go with a dignity that he had always denied his political opponents.

There would be no helicopters lifting off from the roof of his presidential palace and no hastily arranged exile in Saudi Arabia.

If he had delivered the speech two weeks earlier, it would have been a sensation - the start of a kind of Arab spring.

But then of course, you only have to look at Mr Mubarak's head to know that his sense of timing is a little wayward.

Egyptians are now finally bracing for all the uncertainties of change, and are preparing to pay the price in instability that will come with it

He is in his 80s now but his hair is dyed to a rich, deep shade of darkness and still gleams like a polished boot.

A more subtle man might have instructed his hairdressers to start introducing a thread of silver as a nod to the passage of time.

To the outsider, his speech was a little dull and a little lacking in grace as well as a little late.

Some Egyptians though, read it differently.

They noted the references to duty and the allusions to the steadfastness of his military service.

The sub-text was simple: Here was an old warrior - old enough to have flown spitfires - perceiving that his duty to his country lay in remaining in office, at least for now, and resolving to do his duty one more time.

It did not, of course, impress the angry, impassioned protesters on Tahrir Square.

They have made the intoxicating discovery that the mantle of authoritarianism under which they have been suffocating can be lifted, so they want it lifted all the way.

But there are other Egyptians with whom it struck a chord.

Revolution or revolt?

To negotiate the leafy suburban streets outside our offices every evening, we are obliged to pass through a number of civilian checkpoints set up by local residents in response to the disappearance from the streets of the conventional forces of law and order.

Egyptian police officer stands guard by a neighbourhood watch group
Egyptians are protecting their homes from looters in the current upheaval

For the last week or so, Egypt has been a police state with no actual police officers.

It is eerily quiet in the hours of curfew, so quiet that you can hear the rustle of a bat's wing and the gurgle of the Nile, but the vigilantes are a reassuring bunch.

Their weapons range from pump-action shotguns, to golf clubs, meat cleavers and machetes, but you cannot help noticing too the occasional hint of a Harvard accent and the occasional glint of a Rolex watch.

These are prosperous, well-heeled residents who are ready to shoot to kill to defend their homes against the threat of looting.

When people like this take to the streets then change really is in the air.

It is the luxury of the historian to know how events like those of the last week in Cairo will finally be characterised.

Those of us caught up in them cannot be sure if this is a revolution, or an uprising, or a revolt. Nor can we say what sort of Egypt will emerge from it.

Dictators know that people fear instability and they stay in office by portraying themselves as the only alternative to it.

Egyptians are now finally bracing for all the uncertainties of change, and are preparing to pay the price in instability that will come with it.

If Hosni Mubarak had only had better timing, they might have been spared it.

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Profile: Hosni Mubarak
03 Mar 13 |  Middle East


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