The Arab Spring and the discourse of desperation
Issue 14, Summer 2011
Hosni Mubarak addresses Egyptians during the uprising which brought him down - picture by Cheng-long Chang
Shifting from an authoritarian to a democratic discourse
This paper examines the themes and structures of the last three speeches by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia before they were forced out of office. The paper compares and contrasts the substance and structure of the speeches and the strategies used to address the public unrest that swept the streets of Tunisian and Egyptian cities in December 2010, and January and February 2011. The paper puts these themes in their social and cultural contexts, with a focus on the lexicon used, to see if there is any shift in terms of language use. The paper concludes that, as the pressure on them mounted, the presidents used different strategies and language in each speech to address the level of unrest. The paper also concludes that both former presidents adopted the same discourse patterns and strategies in dealing with the unrest. However, there is a difference in their speeches in the use of dialect as a medium of communication with the public.
Before we embark on the analysis of Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s last three speeches while in power, it would be useful to give a brief background on the political profile of both former presidents in order to contextualize their last speeches.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years and under his presidency the country saw economic development, stability and some prosperity due to the robust economic program he established in his early years of office1. He came to power on November 7, 1987 after toppling ageing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup. His initially liberal approach to politics and the economy made him a popular face inside and outside Tunisia (Murphy 1999). His crackdown on the Islamist Ennahdha party won him allies among liberal elites and Western governments, who saw him “as an effective bulwark against Islamist extremism”2. According to Murphy (1999), the Islamist opposition “had been subjected to a ruthless campaign of annihilation, along with leftist and trade union opposition to the regime” (Murphy 1999: 6). During his rule he gave special attention to education and women’s rights. Politically, he scrapped the title “president for life” and initially restricted the presidency to three terms (he later changed the constitution so that he could serve a fourth term). On the social front, he reformed the welfare system and created a special fund for the poor and needy. His discourse emphasized equality and prosperity for all. While his social reform was popular among Tunisians, on the political front there was little progress. The opposition was stifled and the media was fully controlled and monitored.
Human right organisations accused him of detaining hundreds of prisoners, notably members of Ennahdha3. His rule came to an end when young Tunisians took to the streets in protest at widespread unemployment, corruption and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The protests gained strength, and despite his attempts to subdue the uprising, Ben Ali was left with no option but to flee the country to Saudi Arabia. Within weeks Egyptians, inspired by the Tunisian example, came out on the streets too and after 18 days of confrontation, the Egyptian army took control and Mubarak went into retirement.
Mubarak came into power in 1981 on the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Cautious and unimaginative, he provided stability coupled with political stagnation. Under the influence of his son Gamal and economic liberals close to Gamal, the economy began to grow rapidly from about 2004 but growth also increased the gap between rich and poor. The protesters that came out on the streets from January 25 accused the regime of corruption, brutality and political repression. Like Ben Ali, despite numerous attempts to subdue the protests, Mubarak failed to convince the protesters that his offers of reform were sincere.
Before they stepped down, both presidents tried hard to win the masses over to their promises of reform, but to no avail. Despite their attempts to use the discourse of unity, patriotism and change, their discourses were regarded as deceptive and lacking credibility. Like communist regimes in 1989, ‘the lexical substitution in political discourse’ (Bourmeyster 1998: 71) was considered too little too late. They promised ‘democracy’, ‘freedom of expression’, ‘prosperity’ and ‘liberty’ in order to appease protesters who had broken the barrier of fear, but their poor records for fulfilling previous promises undermined their chances of success.