The disorder in Egypt has reminded me of my time in that country. I spent three weeks in Egypt in January/February 2001* and managed to see a bit of the place.
Being a tourist, I won’t pretend I got in amongst the ordinary people. If you follow the tourist trail then most of the people you meet will be running down the road after you trying to foist their trinkets on you. I did, however, get a little off the beaten track and managed to explore some of the noisier,
smellier parts of Cairo. The place is an amazing, chaotic, dirty city. Most tourists get the hell out of Cairo after doing the museum and Pyramids, but they are missing quite an experience.
I saw enough of the Mubarak regime during my time there to form some lasting impressions of it.
I remember seeing pictures of the man everywhere I looked. There’s no surer sign you’re in a police state than finding portraits of the leader all about yourself: murals on walls, billboards of the man's face, and pictures on the inside walls of government offices.
A memorable feature of the regime was the vast number of armed men everywhere I looked: police, tourist police and army. Just about every street corner seemed to have an armed guard.
I didn’t see any trouble during my time there, though I expect most of the populace would have been too cowered to cause any trouble. On one occasion the bus I was in stopped at a checkpoint and the driver was taken into an office by uniformed men for what appeared to be an interrogation. But he emerged twenty minutes later. It might have been nothing sinister – maybe there was a problem with his licence. Who knows?
There’s a lot of talk about democracy after the unrest in Tunisia, and now Egypt. But it is a sad fact that these types of uprisings seldom lead to functioning democracies. If Mubarak departs the scene then whoever replaces him will probably be just as hardline, just as objectionable. At the time of writing this post the army appears to be flexing its muscles, making it clear that it won’t fire on protesters. This move may force the regime to get rid of Mubarak and to appoint someone the army is happy with. It may well be business as usual for most people within the regime.
And even if the entire regime is swept away in a bloody revolution, what follows will likely be ugly and violent.
Our own government certainly cannot be accused of actively taking sides**. Mr Key may have made some ill-advised remarks about Mubarak’s regime during a television interview on breakfast TV on Monday, but what it reveals is that the government has no interest in what goes on in Egypt, so long as it does not affect stability in the region, trade, or our people. This is consistent with Key’s general lack of a strong moral compass. He may be a “good sort”, but when it comes to matters of principle (human rights, democracy etc) he is all too often silent. Key is the sort of neighbour who is affable and who will invite you around for a beer, but when your house catches fire he’ll just stand around gawping.
Certainly nobody would accuse the government of showing any urgency in getting our people out. Other countries have recognised the risk of an escalation and are organising flights. We seem to have been slow off the mark. Admittedly we have more logistical issues to contend with than nations that are only a few hours’ flight from Cairo. But it must be possible to get an Air Force plane into the region, even if only to remain on stand-by.
Key’s reactive “let’s see what happens” style of leadership will be tested if the unrest in Egypt turns into a bloodbath.
* So did I cause this uprising? Did the masses realise it was ten years since
my groundbreaking visit and so chose to mark the anniversary with a parade? Little did they know the gathering would become a riot. Yes, this is all because of me. Perhaps they haven't forgiven me for the carnage I caused to their crude sewer system after contracting a bout of Nile Belly.
** Although various people in the blogosphere have made that accusation. Gordon Campbell, a journalist whose work is usually impeccable, has even suggested John Key's Jewish heritage may be behind his words of support for Israel during that breakfast TV interview. People who support Israel are no more by necessity Jewish than the people who oppose Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories are anti-Semites.