One of my favorite signs to accompany the vast crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Alexandria last weekend was the one declaring simply, "Game over." You'd see the phrase printed on placards, scribbled on pieces of cardboard, and painted hurriedly on walls. It managed to convey several things at once: a sense of finality, both exhausted and impatient, over the passing of a hated regime; the impression of a video game concluding before it's simply switched off; and the idea of political theater at last being called for what it is before it exits stage left.
As a rallying cry for the end of a despised regime, "Game over" sounds wonderfully conclusive. It suggests that a despot's fate is sealed. And it suppresses any hint of doubt that the "game" in question might find a way to continue, reboot, and even morph into still-uglier forms. But as urgent questions surface about how Mubarak's so-called "supporters" managed to stroll past the assembled tanks and army yesterday, brandishing clubs, machetes, and razors against unarmed crowds, and why that army did nothing to intervene when the provocations and furious violence began, clearly instigated by the intruders, it's necessary to ask not only what strategies Mubarak is adopting to foment an anarchy that would seemingly justify his staying, but also what lengths regimes go in general to avoid ignominious defeat.
In an excellent piece on dictators, Christopher Hitchens calls regimes such as Hosni Mubarak's inherently unstable—"nothing is more volatile and unsafe than dictatorship"—owing to all the lies, distortions, and flagrant punishments they've come to rely upon and mete out, to prevent too much dissent from being heard and aired. Then there's the obvious absence of "any self-critical method for [the regime] learning from its mistakes." So, along with the repression of dissent, one gets a massive overcompensation and assumed cult of personality, with presidential photographs on display everywhere, to make it seem as if the transmission of power from self-appointed dictator to son were perfectly logical and inevitable.
Nevertheless, the inherent instability of dictatorships and autocracies requires not only a vast hidden structure of state security forces, both uniformed and anonymous, but also armies of paid thugs and convicts, masking as loyalists and patriots, who are only too happy to instigate violence—in the case of Egypt, transparently so, as several filmed incidents yesterday make disturbingly clear—to look as if they're defending the state from anarchy.
With what stagecraft and apparent nobility of purpose they can then try to pass off the murderous violence. The confusion and bloodbath that ensue can easily look to foreign observers as if the side pressing for reform was too impatient or simply asking for too much, despite the fundamental legitimacy of its pro-democracy needs and aims. As Mubarak has tried to claim, with transparent mendacity, "If I resign today there will be chaos." It would be a chaos perfectly orchestrated to answer his obvious desire for political survival, at which he's already succeeded for more than three decades. The junta in Argentina adopted the same "dirty war" tactics in the 1980s, and similar strategies were in play in Algeria, Iran, and elsewhere a decade later.
Indeed, one need only look to Zimbabwe today, as it careens toward yet another rigged election stoked by predictable fear and violence, to see Mubarak's counterpart a few thousand miles to his south. "Pro-Mugabe militias blamed as Zimbabwe violence erupts," today's headline in the Guardian reads with a depressing sense of déjà vu. "Trouble erupted on Monday," the newspaper reports, "outside an MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] district office in Mbare, a township in the capital, Harare. At least 70 pro-Mugabe militants were trucked in to throw stones and carry out assaults, an independent doctors' group said today. The rampaging mob sang Zanu-PF songs [the party Mugabe leads] and slogans and carried party flags."
As Mugabe (aged 86) is pictured looking increasingly desperate and severe, a clenched fist marking his renewed threats of violence, it's only too clear what awaits Egypt if Mubarak, slightly younger at 82, decides to dig in for yet another round, apparently convinced of his need and political value.
One cannot fail to wonder at both the enormity of that delusion and the scale of megalomania and narcissism in play, especially when dozens of leaders around the world and millions of Mubarak's and Mugabe's own people have made it abundantly clear that they can't wait to see the back of them both.