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It started with a doctored photograph. On show were the statesmen of the Middle East, all the big players. Resolute of brow, they marched purposely up a White House red carpet last September towards the waiting cameras. In the middle was President Obama. To his right was the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and to his left, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and King Abdullah of Jordan.
And there, two steps in front of the others – the clear leader of the group – was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Egypt is historically the leader of the Arab world, so maybe his position seemed justified. But when the picture was carried by the Egyptian state newspaper Al-Ahram it caused hilarity. Everyone knew Mubarak was not at the front because they had seen it on television. He was beyond Mr Netanyahu, and if anything slightly behind his colleagues. The attempt to give him face, courtesy of Photoshop, was laughable.
So, too, as it now turns out, was Mubarak’s determination to stay in power after 30 years in office by rigging a series of presidential and parliamentary elections. In December, his ruling party won a landslide of Saddam Hussein proportions. Yet Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, issued nothing more trenchant than some mildly deprecating remarks and President Obama gave the diplomatic equivalent of a wry shrug even as the man who for decades had been a lynchpin of US policy in the Middle East cut an increasingly absurd figure. In Washington, they are now playing a panicked game of catch-up as mobs on the street say what America failed to see – that it was time for Mubarak and his chums across the region to go.
There are similarities between Tunisia and Egypt; but even by Middle Eastern standards the spectacle of an 82-year-old president pressing for yet another term while entering his fourth decade in office was extreme. There is little doubt that Mubarak will now go. The appointment of his security chief as vice president (the post he held himself before taking power) hints that he has given up the idea of installing his son Gamal as successor. The only question is whether he flees in the next few hours or days, or holds on for a more controlled transfer of power. That timing will be crucial for Egypt’s short-term interests – from basic questions of law and order to the foreign investment and tourism which provide so many jobs.