The Mubarak verdict in the Western press

Published in The Daily News Egypt

In the Western imagination, Egypt has a long pedigree when it comes to tyrants. Stories of the pharaohs figure as prominently in the Bible as they do in the Qur’an, and it was a fallen statue of Rammesses II in Luxor that inspired the poet Shelley’s famous poem about a transient tyrant, Ozymandias.

Unsurprisingly, such motifs loomed large in the Western press’s coverage of Mubarak’s sentencing to life imprisonment this week; “From Pharaoh to Prisoner!” proclaimed Nick Meo in Britain’s Daily Telegraph while the New York Times’s David Kirkpatrick dubbed Mubarak “a modern Ozymandias”.

A jubilatory tone marked their reportage, marred only by the odd factual inaccuracy (Kirkpatrick claimed Mubarak as “the first Arab strongman to be brought before the law”, forgetting the small matter of Saddam Hussein’s trial and execution).

More cautious voices were to be heard at Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Jack Shenker painted a vivid picture of the post-verdict upheavals at Tahrir Square, including the anger at the acquittal of Mubarak’s associates as well as a few startling pro-Mubarak sentiments: “he should never have been on trial anyway”, Shenker quotes one demonstrator.

Many commentators also grasped the ambiguities of the trial. Most incisively, William Dobson, writing for the US online magazine Slate, pointed out “the shallowness of the changes to the Egyptian security state that Mubarak left behind”. This minority of commentators raise the possibility that the Mubarak sentence may well prove a smokescreen to distract attention from further repression, or as Shenker quotes the popular blogger who calls himself The Arabist: “cutting off the heads of the regime to preserve the rest”.

At the same time, all the Western papers heartily wheeled out Mubarak’s literal hit parade of crimes, including the killing of hundreds of demonstrators and his corrupt business dealings. But no Western paper, in its news reports, deigned to mention the tacit support of Western governments to both Mubarak’s megalomania and the security state that Dobson criticises. Certainly, no British newspaper had the wit to ask former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s opinion on the demise of his friend.

The Associated Press does deserve credit for shining a spotlight on this spurious agenda, reporting the resignation of employees of US-funded democracy programmes “to protest what they called undemocratic practices”. Documents obtained by the AP have revealed how State Department funding has picked and chosen when it comes to “building democracy”, favouring liberal groups.

Commentary of the run-up to the second-round of Presidential elections has, predictably, reflected the same bias. Magdi Abdelhadi, in the Guardian, called it “a game of the least bad option”. The most pithy summation of the situation came from Amr Bargisi in the American Jewish magazine Tablet: “Islamist repression vs. repression of Islamism” While practically no-one disagreed with this outlook, some sounded an optimistic chord. Nathan Brown, also in The Guardian, believes “the door to democracy is wide open”.

How long for remains to be seen, as two candidates from political traditions with a history of suspicion towards democracy vie in the country’s first democratic duel. If Shelley were to visit Egypt again, he will have surely noted the irony. Not that it takes a poet to realise this.