Isolated Opulence: Glimpsing Mubarak's Motorcade

Egyptian soldiers stand guard outside the Abdin Presidential Palace in central Cairo on Feb. 10, the 17th day of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak resigned shortly after. i i

Egyptian soldiers stand guard outside the Abdin Presidential Palace in central Cairo on Feb. 10, the 17th day of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak resigned shortly after. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian soldiers stand guard outside the Abdin Presidential Palace in central Cairo on Feb. 10, the 17th day of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak resigned shortly after.

Egyptian soldiers stand guard outside the Abdin Presidential Palace in central Cairo on Feb. 10, the 17th day of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak resigned shortly after.

AFP/Getty Images

Hosam Aboul-Ela is a writer, translator and literary critic. His latest translation is Sonallah Ibrahim's novel Stealth.

Having met during my years in Egypt everyone from drivers to professors, cooks to poets, and even a Nobel laureate, I finally came almost as close as an ordinary citizen can come to meeting now ex-President Hosni Mubarak. It was on a highway between Cairo and Suez in the spring of 1997.

I was riding in a friend's Toyota Corolla as we headed back toward the capital from a garden-filled city called Ismailiya, the last stop on a trip we had taken to look for corners of Egypt that we had not yet discovered.

I was near the end of a three-year residence in the country of my birth, during which I had gotten to know well both Cairo, where I worked and studied, and Alexandria, where my relatives lived. Now I wanted to see regions less familiar. Besides Ismailiya, we had enjoyed a surprisingly tasty breaded steak in Damietta, famous for its frugality and furniture shops, and we drank beer with friendly but hopeless-looking young men in the surprisingly monocultural city of Port Said.

Hosam Aboul-Ela was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and now teaches English at the University  of Houston.

Hosam Aboul-Ela was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and now teaches English at the University of Houston. Courtesy of Hosam Aboul-Ela hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Hosam Aboul-Ela

As we neared a toll booth on the way home, the moonlight that sprinkled the road suddenly dissolved in powerful floodlights, and we heard a speaker calling out into the night: "Bring everything to an absolute stop!"

What we saw then belonged in a Cecil B. DeMille epic. Vehicle after vehicle streamed past us through a vacated toll booth to our right as we mortals sat still. There was a long row of suburban sedans followed by four-wheel drive vehicles and jeeps chock-full of men bearing automatic weapons, sticking out of every window of every vehicle.

In the middle of the entourage, at least four or five completely identical, dark-colored, armor-plated Mercedes limousines raced passed us in a line. After they passed, there were more jeeps and more automatic weapons. Before we could blink, an entourage of maybe two or three dozen vehicles had passed. We sat breathless.

When I think of that night in light of this tumultuous week in Egypt, I contrast that moment with my other experiences of Egypt's vast diversity, living in total separation from its ruler.

The characters in the story of this past week in Egypt are many. An affluent 30-year-old Google executive, who regularly teared up during an emotional television interview; factory workers who walked off their posts; doctors who wore frocks as they marched to Midan Tahrir to join the throngs there. They show the nation's diversity conjoined, for now, in a rock-solid consensus. One couldn't help but see how comprehensive this movement has been, how diverse and far-reaching today's celebrations.

In contrast, there's the president, speaking to the nation with dogged determination, like someone who has spent 30 years in an armored limousine surrounded by his entourage. Yesterday, announcing he would stay in office, the president spoke with conviction. Today, he handed in his resignation surreptitiously, speaking through a proxy.

Being a despot certainly has its perks, but there must also be a loneliness always lurking just outside the room, or chasing you down the highway just behind the armored vehicles. Only someone very isolated could have spoken so forcefully against something so obvious to so many others. Today, what has been obvious to Egyptians for years has prevailed, and it is finally time to watch what this consensus can build.

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