AFTER 18 days of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Hosni Mubarak and the young people of Egypt assembled in Liberation Square in Cairo, the former fighter pilot was the first to blink.
He didn’t walk out with the dignity he would have preferred – his chest thrust out, his head held high. His last speech was made by someone else.
He didn’t have the guts to face the nation itself.
Or so we were all made to believe.
Mubarak had left everything to the army – his army, whose leader (Omar Suleiman) has been called his “poodle” for the 30 years that he has run Egypt like a fiefdom.
Unlike Tunisia’s Ben Ali, he didn’t even leave the country under cover of darkness. He flew out with his family to a resort town in Egypt.
Would he soon receive a message from his soldiers to “return to his palace” – after they had neutralised the young people in Cairo who thought they had won a famous victory against one of the longest serving dictators in the world?
The young people themselves were immediately suspicious: was Mubarak pulling another fast one on them, as he had when he announced he was leaving office, after earlier telling them he would stay put and implement the reform programme they were demanding?
Not many outsiders were satisfied that the army would faithfully follow the young people’s “road map” of full-blooded democracy.
In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s ostensible capitulation, there was justified jubilation in the country of 85 million, most of whom suffered privation under Mubarak’s dictatorship.
One immediate question was: How much of the country’s wealth had Mubarak and his army cronies salted away during their 30 years in power?
People calculated Mubarak had as much as US$20 billion hidden somewhere.
Others thought this a wild guess, inflated deliberately to make the case stronger for bringing him back home to face the music.
What remains to be seen in the next few months is how the army will honour its pledge to the young people of Egypt, the owners of the country’s future.
Any attempt to pull the wool over their eyes could result in the most catastrophic consequences for both sides.
There was no immediate cast-iron guarantee that the soldiers would keep their word.
By all accounts most of the senior officers were also up to their necks in looting the country’s wealth.
It is reported that all of them are billionaires.
Generally speaking, no African army has distinguished itself in looking after the interests of the civilian population – without extracting some quid pro quo – such as being allowed to do as they please, or for the government to turn a blind eye to the obscenely luxurious lifestyles of the top brass.
South Africa is the most visible exception.
In the end, what vanquished Mubarak’s “hang tough” stance was his failure to use the “foreigners are to blame” ruse.
Many other African leaders have blamed all their political and economic woes on foreigners, mostly the West.
In Mubarak’s case, the culprits seemed to be the Americans.
There was a time, during the Cold War, when this accusation against “The Ugly American” would have been plausible.
Today – the cold war is dead.
China, with its economic clout, remains the most powerful challenge to the West.
Japan, both politically and economically, is not in the “East” camp of the old Cold War calculation.
For some African countries, the end of the Cold War was a huge political disaster.
Most of them excused their dictatorships as a bulwark against real or imagined “imperialist machinations”.
Some of them still do.
But Mubarak’s failure to use that ploy successfully must have sent a chilling signal to all like-minded African dictators.
What fuelled the young people’s anger was hunger, not ideology.