A population of 80 million gives Egypt special weight in that world. Egyptians take the lead in the Arab media and cinema, in women’s emancipation; they are proud of their preeminence and continuous identity as a nation. “The first lesson from Tunisia is that revolution is possible. You have to remember that there hasn’t been anything like it in the Arab world for decades.” Speaking like that, one among many others, a popular blogger in Cairo was as good as summoning everyone to turn out for the biggest and best revolution of them all.
The Mubarak years have seen economic growth, a beneficial relationship with the United States, and continued peace with Israel. Eighty-two now and in poor health since a recent gall-bladder operation in Germany, Mubarak is basing a last defensive stand for one-man rule on a record of stability. A military man, he trained as a pilot in the Soviet Union of old. Anwar Sadat appointed him vice president, while making it plain that he did not think too highly of Mubarak’s political skills. Sadat’s assassination by Islamists was the unforeseen turn of events which brought Mubarak to power. He inherited the indispensable security and police forces as well as a single party, the National Democratic Party, by means of which control and patronage become almost indistinguishable. A lot of the dirty work has been entrusted to Omar Suleiman, the chief of the intelligence services until his recent appointment to the vice presidency, and a man with the capacity for it. Few know more than he about the twists and turns of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Pointedly Mubarak had made sure never to appoint a successor to the position he once held as vice president. His personal and exclusive power has been a stranglehold. The sole suggested alternative to his rule has been the promotion to the presidency of his son Gamal, “Jimmy” to friends, a 47-year-old former investment banker in London who leads a life very different from that of the half of the Egyptian population said to subsist on four dollars a day or less. At the moment the crowds are enjoying burning the posters put up everywhere of father and son. They have a slogan: “Gamal, tell your father the Egyptians hate you.” Suleiman is a one-man ruler in waiting, and his abrupt appointment as vice president is late in the day but ends the unwisdom of having Gamal next in line as president.