HOSNI MUBARAK with donkey ears, Hosni Mubarak with a Hitler moustache, Hosni Mubarak as Colonel Sanders—once the protesters started heaping on the scorn, they couldn’t stop. It had been a long time coming.
The only other time I had heard anyone in Egypt express public contempt for Mubarak was in 2003, before a prosperous and well-educated audience at the American University in Cairo. Edward Said, the distinguished Palestinian-American literary critic, had just given a stirring lecture on the difficulty of life under a repressive regime, namely (of course), Israel. During the question and answer session, an American study-abroad student took the microphone to ask a question that sent such a frisson through the crowd that I doubt I am the only one who remembers it more or less verbatim. “Here in Egypt,” he said, “we’re living under a military dictatorship, and it looks like Hosni Mubarak wants to pass the leadership on to his son Gamal.” How, he asked, could Egyptians fight back against repression?
The fear that passed through the crowd was audible, visible, palpable and immediate. Someone yelped when the name “Gamal” was mentioned, and a professor rushed to cut off the microphone. Dissidents, including the university’s own Saad Eddin Ibrahim, had been imprisoned for asking such questions. After several seconds of extreme distress—followed by a round of light applause from students—Said responded wanly, saying that all political regimes were inherently coercive, and yes, it’s difficult, isn’t it? At this point, the distressed yelps came from the students, who seemed to faint a little inside when they realised that if even Edward Said (beloved in Cairo, and with terminal leukemia, having little to lose) was too craven to support regime change, then no one would.