President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is
facing the toughest challenge to his 30-year rule but he is not
the only dictator in the world not to read the signals on his
radar. His own unarmed people have risen in revolt against him but
that is not the way he sees it.
What is happening in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez strongly resonates
the "people power" revolt in the Philippines 25 years ago, which
forced President Ferdinand Marcos, his family, friends and close
relatives to hastily flee the country. Marcos, otherwise a shrewd
politician, also failed to read the signals. When people rose in
revolt against him, he saw it as a conspiracy much the same way as
Mubarak sees it today.
President Mubarak's son and some close relatives have reportedly
fled the country and it seems unlikely he will survive the largely
peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and other cities.
The events that are unfolding in Egypt bear uncanny resemblance to
what happened on the streets of Manila in February 1986 to which I
was a witness as Reuters' correspondent there.
Twenty-five years later, it is easy to tell what mistakes Marcos
was making. He refused to talk to his opponent, Corazon Aquino,
whose husband Benigno was shot dead at Manila airport in 1983. She
fought the presidential election against Marcos and claimed
victory when it became clear the vote-count was fraudulent.
There was no election in Egypt but Mubarak has so far showed no
inclination to talk to Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize
Winner, who is emerging as the leader of the masses in the
Marcos refused to talk to Aquino even when hundreds of thousands
of people came out on the streets of Manila, declaring victory for
her and asking for his resignation. His reaction was to order
troops and tanks to the streets of Manila to face hundreds of
thousands of unarmed protestors.
How do you shoot and kill almost a quarter of a city's population
doing nothing more than chanting slogans? You don't. And the armed
forces of the Philippines did not either. Instead, they shook
hands with protestors, allowed them to climb on to tanks and broke
bread with them. It became a picnic.
Almost exactly the same thing is happening in Cairo. Unarmed
protestors are out on the streets, sharing food with soldiers.
Right now it is a picnic. Protestors are riding army tanks and
television images showed at least one army officer shouting
slogans against the government.
We will know which side the troops are on once they are ordered to
shoot and kill.
President Mubarak is showing restraint and so did Marcos. Mubarak
knows (and Marcos knew) that mass killing of innocent citizens
would leave him so friendless in the world that he might not even
find a safe sanctuary anywhere.
When Marcos tried some hard tactics, they backfired on him pretty
badly. On Feb 22, 1986, his Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and
Head of Constabulary, General Fidel Ramos, defected and took
shelter at Camp Aguinaldo in Manila, the headquarter of the armed
forces where they had some loyalists.
From there they issued calls to their friends to come to their
aid. Filipinos poured out on streets as if it were a national
festival. Two days later, Marcos came on the government television
channels and asked soldiers to attack Camp Aguinaldo. He ordered
them to use only "small arms fire". Not a bullet was fired.
He ordered helicopters to attack the Camp. The air force pilots
circled overhead and landed at Aguinaldo to embrace their
colleagues who had already defected. On Feb 26, Marcos left the
country lock, stock and barrel to eventually live and die in
The Egyptian story has so far played out like a remake of the 1986
Manila fable. One or two gaps remain. Mubarak has yet to order
killing of unarmed people and senior army officers have yet to
signal their support for the people.
If and when that happens, President Mubarak will have little time
to leave the country. If there is a massacre of the people, he
will win only a brief respite. After all, Egypt is burning on a
(The writer, a former Reuters and Bloomberg
correspondent, covered the Philippines revolt. He can be contacted