Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Mubarak's Mindset Contributed to his Downfall

If political regimes can be compared to movies, then Mubarak's Egypt was like an uneventful long one whose unanticipated thrilling end offered a delayed consolation to its disgruntled audience. After three decades of lifeless politics, the final, dramatic 18 days of Mubarak's rule was a breathtaking saga of hope, fear, tears and jubilation.

Mubarak's poor performance during the crisis that toppled him off Egypt's presidency can be attributed to his hesitation in dealing with a bold and dynamic adversary. In contrast to the old man's dawdling, even lethargic, approach, the young revolutionaries quickly escalated their demands, diversified their tactics, and responded to fast-moving events with creativity and vigor.

Since his early years in office, Mubarak had taken pride in his "calculated" way of doing business. Explaining his preferred decision-making style, he said: "I do not like to take decisions under pressure unless there are strong motivations for doing so. My way is to take my time on any decision I take.” He defended what his critics saw as sluggishness in decision-making by saying: “slowness (in decision-making) so that the decision is well-studied and successful is a million times better than taking dozens of unplanned decisions [and] then annulling them after [being] proved wrong."

If this "slow but sure" method could arguably work in normal times, employing it at times of a sudden and high-paced crisis is undoubtedly disastrous. The many concessions given by Mubarak to the demonstrators in his final days in office had one thing in common: they were too little, too late.

To be sure, indecisiveness wasn’t Mubarak's only fatal malady; he also lost touch with reality. Longevity of dictatorships often contributes to their isolation. In recent years, the aging Mubarak has spent most of his time in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh. He became less energetic, less attentive to the 'boring' details of everyday governance, thus more reliant on a small number of trusted aides, who were detached from the public mood and whose efforts were primarily consumed in the pursuit of their own interests.

With time, isolation begets denial. The tales of past tyrants demonstrate that addiction to power is a potent toxic; all cognitive tricks are used to justify clinging to it. The inability to cope with impending dangers drives some leaders to deny the very existence of these dangers. The "I don’t know that I know" attitude wards off anxiety, negates feelings of loss and restores calm. In some cases, denial that originates as a defense mechanism against painful realities ultimately morphs into a way of life. Legend has it that when the last Moorish king, King Boabdil, received a letter that carried the news that his capital city Alhama was about to be lost, he burnt the letter and beheaded the messenger.

Mubarak's last few years in office were marred with rampant corruption, increasing economic and social hardships, dwindling legitimacy and growing civil unrest. To Mubarak's mind, it was easier to believe that the diabolized Muslim Brotherhood group was behind all evils, that anti-regime demonstrators were nothing but a handful of hating (even self-hating) individuals, and that "progress" under his leadership has been undeniably remarkable.

This out-of-touch-with-reality posture was, particularly in the last few years, created and consolidated by his aides, who habitually declined to deliver bad news to the president, and propagandists of the ancien regime who boasted about the 'niceties' of Mubarak's age—"the golden era of democracy" he so generously granted Egypt, the economic development that was "unprecedented since Mohamed Ali's time" and that his presence was indispensable for Egypt's wellbeing.

As the folix a duex (madness shared by two) theory demonstrates, distorted views of the world are easier to be sustained if others around us share the same views. In their bid to legitimize and consolidate his fragile rule, ironically, Mubarak's sycophantic aides, party apparatchiks and state media pundits precipitated the demise of their patron.

In each of the three statements he gave during the revolution, Mubarak seemed to be living in a virtual world of his (and that of his aides) own making. Egyptians were perplexed to see him so detached from real events; the question "doesn’t he see Al-Jazeera," could be frequently heard in Cairo's cafes and chitchat circles. Mubarak "lives in a coma" a reformist judge commented after his third, and final, speech.

Mubarak certainly had ample access to what was going on, but how this input was processed in his mind is what matters. Politicians often make sense of the world by depending on a set of beliefs and images and continue to aim at maintaining consistency among the different facets of that predetermined paradigm. At the height of the Cold War, a cognitive approach to studying former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s negative image of the Soviet Union showed his tendency to resist new information conflicting with his well-entrenched image of the Soviets by engaging in a wide range of psychological processes such as questioning the new information, searching for other contradictory information, reinterpreting the information, engaging in wishful thinking and even avoiding thinking about it.

The self-perpetuation of Mubarak's delusional beliefs of the situation in Egypt was motivated by the ever strong, deeply-entrenched survival instinct. The peculiar way the mind functions in the quest for survival; construing information, erecting illusionary castles out of oblivion and reducing unshakable facts to nothingness attests to the crucial role political psychology can play in understanding the behavior of leaders in one-man rule regimes. As the world is contemplating ways to stop the carnage in Libya, a deeper look into the character of Gaddafi becomes so imperative. If Mubarak's stolid and straightforward character resembles a highway, the mind of flamboyant Gaddafi by contrast is a bewildering maze.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 17, 2011.

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