To oust Mubarak, Egyptian protesters must appeal to vanity, not shame

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is unbothered by spotlights shaming him. The only way he'll step down is if he believes it will burnish his image.

Before President Hosni Mubarak visits a certain neighborhood in Cairo, police move in to tow cars and pick up garbage, so he doesn’t have to see what his cluttered, polluted capital really looks like. A student of mine showed me a series of about 30 photographs he took in his neighborhood of police and government workers feverishly removing garbage and cars from a main street before Mubarak arrived in all his eminence.

Around Egypt, there are absurd images of the man. My favorite is a large billboard on the road to Cairo International Airport featuring him in a finely tailored suit, wearing designer sunglasses, and walking alone in a wheat field as he runs his fingers across the wind-kissed grains. Another gem is a Rushmore-like bust of himself that Mubarak had carved into the side of a rocky hill outside Cairo.

Wrong approach

The hundreds of thousands of protesters now swelling central Cairo are trying to oust Mubarak by appealing to his sense of shame. That’s the wrong approach. They should be trying to appeal to his sense of vanity.

Mubarak has no problem with the notion that he’s exceptional, and he doesn’t embarrass easily. He’s unbothered by spotlights shaming him. The only way Mubarak will step down from power, other than death, is if he believes he is some sort of political martyr who was terribly misunderstood in his time, and that those writing history will see it the same way.

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

This is Mubarak’s Brett Favre moment. He has a choice: He can leave now, in a way of his choosing, with the smallest measure of self-respect. Or he can leave later, in a way not of his choosing, with ignominy.

Mubarak has gone on the record in a few past interviews, rhetorically asking journalists things like, “I’ve been president in this country for many years, and what has it gotten me?,” which he once posed to journalist Randa Abul Azm. He clearly views himself as an embattled public servant who thanklessly met the needs of his people. Like Harry Truman, perhaps.

Start penning his memoirs

The answer to Mubarak’s question is that his presidency has gotten him quite a lot. It has been said that Egypt is a rich country with a poor people. It is, and the disparity in proceeds goes to Mubarak and to funding his dreaded state security gangs. One thing that his dictatorship hasn’t gotten him, though, is sympathy. If his exhausted handlers and allies abroad can convince Mubarak he’s a modern day Job, he may be woeful enough to step down and have a ghostwriter start penning his memoirs.

Playing the shame game with Mubarak, though, is a waste of time. He’s a man who praises the institutions of the country he oversees, yet travels to Europe for lengthy medical holidays. He’s a dictator who went 30 years without tolerating a vice president in his country, unwilling to consider the day when his kingdom might belong to someone else – or to the people.

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He may not be as attracted to himself as dictators in, say, Libya and North Korea, but his self-infatuation is still very hard to miss. Which is why he is not interested in stepping down and leaving a country that hates him. He longs to remain Egypt’s unelected fist.

Mubarak appears convinced that he can weather a major national uprising as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did in the summer of 2009: by crushing dissent, shrouding his people in an Internet blackout, and rounding up supposed anti-regime schemers and putting them on display before they recede into torture factories. To him, the uprising in Egypt represents a nationwide nuisance that he must crush and proceed beyond, instead of an indicator that his country doesn’t want him.

Historians will remember Mubarak as a tyrant who poached from his people in order to remain in power for 30 years. Over this legacy he has no control. But there is still a window for him to be remembered as a man who at least acknowledged that his people deserved better.

Who knows; even career dictators can have epiphanies. Trying to appeal to the man’s sense of shame, though, won’t work. For him to step down, Mubarak must believe the lie that he’s a victim of circumstance and that quitting will make this clear to others.

Justin D. Martin, PhD, teaches journalism at The American University in Cairo and is a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter.

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