The last Pharaoh’s slow death

Perhaps, sometime during his 30-year reign, Hosni Mubarak may have thought that his life’s end would be hard. A visit to the grand, dilapidated Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s heart, with its displays of royal mummies, would have reminded him that, most times, the end comes with the blows of an axe, the result of political intrigue or foreign invasion.

The absolute ruler of a regime that seemed unshakeable, a war hero, Mubarak protected himself from every possible danger. He succeeded a murdered president, Anwar Sadat, and was himself the target of terrorist attacks. He did all that a leader can do to protect himself ? the regime was there to serve and protect him. His name, his statues, lorded over the Egyptians, like the ancient, deified rulers of old. What he could not prevent was the way his own people developed, the hunger that grew within them, a development that made his survival untenable.

The spectacle of the last Pharaoh in a courtroom cage on Wednesday, on a hospital gurney, dressed in prison whites, marked the passing of Egypt and perhaps the whole Arab world into a new era. The ritualistic deconstruction of Mubarak ? a humiliation, a death in slow motion ? was an act both public and personal, specific and symbolic, an ancient ritual live on television.

The ancient Egyptians believed that every dead person was accountable for his actions. Life was a preparation for the moment of judgment, when the human’s heart would be weighed; if it were burdened by evil, the divine judge would feed it to a waiting beast, condemning the individual to total annihilation. Even at that time, though, mortals also could intervene and condemn the deceased: erasing his name from every surface would damn him to eternal darkness, as was the fate of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton.

Today the living judge the living, with charges that carry a sentence of death. Mubarak’s name has been erased from buildings, parks and military bases. His compatriots, his former colleagues, are weighing his actions. As has been noted throughout the Arab world, the trial of Mubarak, his sons and members of his regime, is a message to every autocratic ruler that he too will be held to account.

The Middle East is no stranger to bloody successions, but the courtroom ritual is a new development. For the first time, the region’s leaders will have to consider the needs but also the power of their people. We cannot know whether this emancipation will lead to democracy or the imposition of harsher dictatorships. Whatever the verdict in Mubarak’s trial, the future will judge both him and his judges. If Egypt prospers, he will be held responsible for 30 years of stagnation; if Egypt regresses, he will be remembered for 30 years of stability. At this moment, Hosni Mubarak, the man, is a little leaf on the great river of history.

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