Born in 1984, Egyptian artist Muhammad Labib had known nothing but Mubarak and with the dawn of every day in his 27 years, he grew more and more certain that the incumbent ruler was by no means susceptible to deterioration, demise, or even death –the last being the only way people hoped would rid them of the power-obsessive tyrant. Surviving on the hope that no member of the human race is immortal, Labib took refuge in ancient Egypt where kings lived with the illusion that they were gods and that their life on earth was just a transient stop on the way to eternity. With a tongue-in-cheek approach, he seems to be teasing both Mubarak and his ancestors by telling the first he will end up like the second and by demonstrating to the second the failure of their modern reincarnation as represented by the first. He gives this portrait of a figure that combines the historical and the contemporary the title King Mubarakses the 2010.
Made to rhyme with Ramses – the name given to several pharaohs from the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, the most celebrated of whom is Ramses II – Labib adds the “ses” he makes into a suffix that denotes belonging to a pharaoh-like system of governance. Then following the tradition of identifying pharaohs with numbers, basically with pharaohs of the same name to distinguish one from another and indicate chronological sequence, he also adds a number after the name, this time in a different manner. 2010 is the year in which this work of art was conceived and is also when 29 years had passed since Mubarak came to power. However, adding the number after the name also gives the impression that Mubarak comes at the end of a long line of pharaohs that number 2009 and that he is the 2010th. Labib, therefore, establishes the hypothesis, or rather the fact, that Egyptian rulers since ancient times have only been different manifestations of the pharaoh figure and that Mubarak was none other than a continuation of a long tradition of authoritarian regimes in which one single man had the first and last say and in which people were allowed to exist only if they stick to the margins. The subtitle he adds—“Ruling since the Dawn of History”—accentuates this idea as it merges all those rulers into one person so that it becomes hard to assert that it was not Mubarak who was ruling in the thirteenth century B.C. or that it was not Ramses II who ruled in the twenty-first century A.D. When he produced this artwork, the artist was not sure Mubarak will not follow Ramses’ suit and stay in power for 67 years as scientifically and biologically impossible as that was.
Looking at the way Mubarak is depicted makes one realize that the decadence with which the face is afflicted is obviously not due to a defacement attempt like the ones to which several pharaohs were subjected at the hands of their successors – Akhenaten being the most vivid example. The cracks seem naturally induced rather than externally inflicted, which conveys the artist’s belief that the regime carried within it the seeds of its destruction and that the inner rottenness was starting to transpire outwards. Each of these cracks can be seen as an epitome of the various aspects of tyranny and corruption that plagued Egypt during Mubarak’s reign – the emergency law, torture to death in police stations, persecution of freedom writers, plundering the resources of the country, the bequest of power, and the list goes on forever. Some cracks are deeper than others, not because some of Mubarak’s crimes were more forgivable or less damaging, but possibly because some played a more crucial role than others in bringing about the annihilation of the regime. The fissure –quite a deep hole – in the nose is the most obvious not only by virtue of being the biggest but also for its location right in the middle of the face, an indication that the regime had received an outright blow that is likely to turn fatal. In fact, it is from this position that one gets to feel that the whole face is about to collapse.
Few remnants of the past haughtiness can still be traced amid the wrinkle-like cracks that are obviously struggling to hide the overtly conspicuous signs of rapid aging and crippling frailty. Mubarak is still lifting his head up high in an attempt to maintain the “I am above all” posture that had kept intensifying with every year he spent in power. In another display of the unrelenting intransigence for which he had been known, Mubarak was trying to escape the inescapable through a semblance of strength that ran contrary to the truth on the ground. However, all signs of life have been washed off the once vibrant eyes so that the face is stripped of its human attributes as it turns into that of a corpse ready for the mummification that precedes the trip towards the illusory eternity. The absence of an eye pupil and the flatness of the surface of the eye can also suggest blindness not in the sense that it can no longer detect the light, but rather demonstrating an absolute lack of vision as far as the wellbeing of the country and the imminence of his end are concerned. With an ego-centrism that bordered megalomania, Mubarak was unable to see outside himself, so he neither gave himself the chance to contemplate the disastrous impact of his rule on Egypt nor to foresee the abyss towards which he was walking with steady steps. The eyes also look as if they had been gouged a la Oedipus, which implies an act of violence that induced a fast and eternal plunge into pitch-black darkness. Mubarak had indeed chosen to blind himself in an act that he assumed would shelter him from anything he perceived as a threat. Little did he know that this same self-imposed blindness would play a decisive role in speeding up his downfall as overdue as it had already been.
The stiff upper lip, which according to body language studies conveys restraint and an attempt to maintain dignity in the middle of a mortifying situation, serve to intensify the exertion of an arduous effort to sail against the tides and resume the charade till the end. The continuous strain which his lips had undergone had over time formed the longest and most branched of the cracks, thus creating another weak spot from which the face might disintegrate, especially that this multiple crack had crept to the neck and was likely to extend to the entire body.
The yellowish map in the background is typical of history books depicting conquests in ancient times by emperors who expand their reign across continents and assert their power through the subjugation of as many territories as possible. Even though Mubarak had no conquests in the proper sense of the word, he was the tyrannical colonizer of his own people and the conqueror of a land that resisted his presence as much as it did that of a foreign invader. While such maps might have been hung in royal courts as a source of pride, they are in this context a symbol of the shame Mubarak has brought to Egypt through ruling it by force, taking its people captive, and effecting an unequalled destruction upon both. Like the maps of an ancient era in which occupation was commonplace, Mubarak was soon to become history and like every colonizer he was bound to be kicked out from a land that yearned for freedom. One can see that the right side is starting to fold, hence heralding a turning of this page and the beginning of another.
When Muhammad Labib first showed me this artwork at the end of 2010, I asked him, “What possessed you to do this?” He was silent for a few seconds as if desperately seeking a logical explanation for a purely artistic impulse that requires none. “The man’s days are numbered,” he said. “I know it.” I was thrilled, yet felt a chill run down my spine. I so much hoped this will prove true, yet was unable to figure out how and was terrified at the price this might entail. I smiled with a little bit of apprehension and said, “Fingers crossed!”
A month later, we were both marching side by side among hundreds of Egyptians that grew into thousands then millions, all screaming at the top of their lungs, “The people demand the fall of the regime!” and “Down with Hosni Mubarak!”
Eighteen days later, the cracks had already spread all over the ailing body and in a moment that changed the face of history, the colossal bulk crumbled into a heap of dust at the feet of the brave Egyptians who then realized that the blood of their compatriots had not been shed in vain.
The newly-liberated freedom fighters flung away the remaining particles and as they saw the wind carry them away into eternal oblivion, they finally bid farewell to the era of the pharaohs.
* Both article and artwork were displayed at the exhibition Voices from the Levant (July 7- July 22, 2011) in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)