On Wednesday, August 13, former President Hosni Mubarak denied complicity in the killing of over 800 protestors in Egypt’s 2011 uprising. An appeals court rescinded a life sentence and a guilty charge in January 2013. The retrial’s verdict is due at the end of September.
This testimony, aired live on TV, is likely Mubarak’s “last word” to the Egyptian people. In his language and tone he sought neither forgiveness nor compassion. He affirmed his record of serving and protecting Egypt for more than sixty years. And he positioned himself as a caring, strong, and righteous father: rising above the wickedness of those who “smeared” him and dismissing the ungratefulness of those who forgot what he had done for the county.
This notion of ‘fatherhood’ is deeply problematic for a wide section of young Egyptians. Three and a half years since the uprising that toppled him, Mubarak’s brand of top-down authority, sense of superior knowledge, assumption of deep wisdom, and exercising the right to educate, instruct, discipline, and punish, remains extremely unappealing to them.
Large groups of the forty-five million Egyptians under 35-years-of-age—who suffer poor housing, education, healthcare, job-prospects, and difficult and often humiliating daily lives—believe they have inherited failures that they did not contribute to, and yet are living their consequences on a daily basis. At its heart, the uprising they instigated in 2011 was a rebellion against the power structure that they consider responsible for these failures.
And this reveals one of the serious fissures in Egypt today. Against those rebellious youths, there is another wide group, scattered across all social segments, that accepts this asserted ‘fatherhood.’ Having witnessed the economic regression, security threats, and chaotic situation that Egypt has experienced in the last three years, this group wants to return to the comfort zone of relying upon a strong state that assumes the responsibility for the economic, social, and security challenges. It wants to nestle in the warm belief that a powerful, assertive, knowledgeable, and nationalistic leadership is taking care of the country’s acute problems. They want the intellectual shelter of seeing the chaos they experienced as the work of traitors and foreigners. They feel that the past was largely agreeable, and so it could guide the future. This conviction is especially important for older Egyptians as it overturns the torturous idea that they—the generations that shaped society from the early 1960s to the late 1990s—have led the country to the brink.
Accepting the regime’s top-down patriarchal authority necessitates exoneration. Fathers should be trusted and respected. And so Mubarak’s trial becomes a show, not of legal evidence and arguments, but of the emotional needs of the two groups. The Egyptians that want Egypt’s first republic (the regime of the past six decades) to continue, albeit in a more modern, fresh and competent format, want Mubarak to be set free, his honor intact. The rebellious youths, on the other hand, want him to be proven guilty. For them, his guilt is a condition for what they really seek: a complete detachment from the political and social structure that has ruled Egypt in the last half century.
This desire for detachment was the primary reason behind young Egyptians’ conspicuously low participation in the January 2014 referendum on Egypt’s new constitution and the presidential election in May. But this disenchantment with the past is a world away from the immense admiration that other social groups have for the institutions of Egypt’s first republic, and from their belief that these institutions should lead Egypt into the future.
In his 2003 film, The Return, Andrey Zviagintsev shows that the death of the father descends one son into despair, a feeling of having lost his sanctuary, and triggers a fear of facing the inevitable process of confronting life on his own. He questions, “Where would I go now; away from home, it is all an unknown.” And yet, at the same time, it makes the other son feel “free,” “finally emerging from the darkened past.” As Zviagintsev put it in a comment on his film, “Part of the dilemma is that how we see our past is a chimera; and that realization is a necessary step to finally move into adulthood.” Like the two sons, one group of Egyptians needs the familiarity of the past to guide it into the future. Another can’t wait to break the confining mould, to pursue its potential.
Like other controversial fathers, from King Lear to Fyodor Karamazov, Mubarak did not pursue redemption. In his trial, Mubarak’s legacy and fate are actually minor issues. The real value of this trial lies in the debate it has unleashed among Egyptians—especially young Egyptians—concerning their attitude to authority, how they perceive their country’s recent past, and the kind of relationship they seek with the state.
Tarek Osman is the author of the international bestseller Egypt on the Brink.