In recent days, many commentators have described Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as the country’s ‘last Pharaoh’. It’s a good soundbite. But it may not tell the whole story.
Egyptians play fast and loose with their famous heritage.
After all, the national soccer team is nicknamed The Pharaohs.
But when it comes to politics, says Joshua Stacher at Kent State University, calling somebody a pharaoh is an insult.
“If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” Stacher says. “It’s not a good term.”
And Stacher disputed the idea that Mubarak is the last pharaoh.
“There are plenty of pharaohs standing right behind him in the palace ready to take over,” Stacher says. “It’s not a term of endearment.”
Maybe not right now. But the pyramids of the pharaohs cast long shadows in Cairo, where Tarek Osman lives. He’s the author of Egypt on the Brink.
“The pharaoh also in the Egyptian psyche is the demi-god who ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt — and that is an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche,” Osman says.
But over the past 50 or 60 years, Osman says, the notion of the pharaoh has morphed into a more generic father-of-the-nation idea, a change encouraged by Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, Presidents Nasser and Sadat.
Nasser portrayed himself as the inspiring leader of a national regeneration.
“It was more of a grand historical project,” says Osman. “Sadat adopted a completely different modus operandi. Sadat was the man who attended the weddings and the funerals and his choice of words and language was very colloquial, unlike Nasser who mastered the classic Arabic language — so Sadat enacted a very different patriarch role.”
And then came Mubarak — and unlike the other two, he came from a military background.
For him, says Osman, building a strong-man narrative fit best.
“The firm, solid protector, even though in the past thirty five years Egypt has not entered into military confrontation, but still the role of: protect the land, protect the people, protect the national security,” says Osman.
Sounds familiar, especially to Russians. They have their own deep-rooted ideal of leadership: the tsar.
“Russians believe that Russia is the kind of country that needs what they call a strong hand,” says Marshall Poe, a historian at the University of Iowa. “It is a legacy of tsarism, it is also a legacy of Soviet rule — and the premise is that Russia is unruly, Russians themselves are unruly and therefore they need somebody powerful in the center to make things run right.”
Stalin was a tsar of sorts. Now Putin is. History suggests that Russians don’t trust themselves to run things. A form of democracy came to Russia in the 90s, and yet the figure of the tsar persists.
Poe says it speaks to a deep-seated mistrust of democracy that’s not unusual around world.
“Its pretty rare to walk up to someone and say do you think it’s okay to put power in the hands of everyone and that things would be ok?” Poe says. “They would think you were from Mars. The idea of inside every Egyptian or North Korean is an American trying to get out and go to the polling booth is false.”
A couple days ago, after President Mubarak promised not to stand for re-election; Tarek Osman listened to Egyptians calling in to live radio programs. He says many repeated the same thing.
“Oh he is our father, he is our father — we have to give him some sort of honorable exit until he steps down in September,” Osman says. “And if you did a survey of how many times the word father was said, it was far more than any other word.”
Osman says the contemporary mixture of Pharaoh and father-figure embodied by Hosni Mubarak won’t go simply when he goes. But he does expect it to fade. More and more Egyptians are educated and connected.
And for them the pharaoh belongs only in the museum.