Dead or Alive, Mubarak Is a Sideshow in Egypt's Drama

With the military seizing power and the first-ever presidential race still undecided, Egyptians have bigger things to worry about than their "clinically dead" former dictator.

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Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak waves at a 2009 economic summit in Italy. (AP)

Even when it looked as if deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak really was gone this time, with reports circling the globe that doctors had declared him "clinically dead" after he suffered a stroke and his heart stopped, CNN's Ivan Watson couldn't find a single Egyptian who seemed to care. "NO ONE in Tahrir is talking about Mubarak," he tweeted from a protest in Cairo's central square. "Crowd is chanting 'down with military rule.'" Neither could the Huffington Post's Max Rosenthal. "FWIW, not sure I heard Mubarak's name once tonight. Everyone focused on SCAF. They know 'old regime' is a much bigger idea/force," he wrote.

The BBC's Cara Swift was able to find a smattering of people gathered outside the hospital that's holding Mubarak, some in support and some in protest. But the action was across town in Tahrir, where tens of thousands gathered to protest the military's recent announcement that it would grant itself sweeping powers over the democratically elected government. The Muslim Brotherhood bussed in thousands of its own supporters, who had good reason to worry: after enduring a decades-long ban, they had won both a large share of Parliament and possibly the presidency, but over the past week, a military-aligned court had dissolved the Parliament and the Mubarak-allied Ahmed Shafiq had declared himself the real winner of the presidential election.

Whether or not he was "clinically dead" earlier tonight or becomes actually dead later on, Mubarak was already long gone, as far as Egypt is concerned. In the year and a half since Mubarak's vice president announced his boss's departure, the man who ruled Egypt for three decades appeared to be barely relevant to his country's fate, little more than a sideshow who was occasionally wheeled into court, where he'd sit sternly in the cage reserved for criminal defendants.

Most Egyptians have bigger things to worry about than what happens to their 84-year-old former dictator. He may have been the most important individual in the Egyptian government, but it turns out that he was not, on his own, its most important force. The military, which supported Mubarak for decades before finally helping to push him from office, has moved to consolidate more power than it ever held under the now-comatose president. Egyptians sometimes talk about the military as enforcing Mubarakism without Mubarak, but often they see something distinct in uniformed generals ruling directly.
The Democracy Report
Even if Egypt's elected Parliament members and president end up with little real power, the mere act of electing them has opened its own new challenged for Egypt. For the first time, the marketplace of ideas is open in Egypt. The liberals who led the protests, the Muslim Brothers who have reaped the widest popular support, the law-and-order voters who selected former Mubarak officials, the Coptic Christians, even hardcore conservative Salafists all have a chance, finally, to plead their case for how to govern the Arab world's largest country. There's no telling what this national conversation, which has seen moments of remarkable cooperation and horrifying conflict, will ultimately mean for Egypt. But, in the months since Mubarak's ouster, the daily tug-of-war between Egypt's social and political factions has been of far greater consequence than Mubarak's trial or even his (apparently apocryphal) death.

Why has Mubarak mattered so little? In neighboring Libya, fellow dictator Muammar Qaddafi had made himself synonymous with the state, so that when he fell, so did everything he had built. But the Mubarak-led regime was always much bigger than the man who sat on top of it. Its military, one of the largest in the world with half a million troops, is also one of the most autonomous, with its own direct relationship to the Pentagon and a whole mini-economy of businesses and investments. His civilian National Democratic Party weaved a vast bureaucracy and a vaster patronage network across Egypt, and his brutal secret police enforced authoritarianism across a nation of 80 million. There are state-owned enterprises, from textiles to tourism to the Suez Canal Authority. And Mubarak made it all fit together, even if the state he built was also cruel, unjust, corrupt, and ultimately unsustainable.

Mubarak may have been the keystone in this enormous construction, but remove a keystone and it's just another rock. Meanwhile, it's the stones falling down around your head that you should worry about.