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Stress Like an Egyptian

hosni-mubarakPower stresses. Absolute power stresses absolutely. This easy paraphrase of a famous saying about the corruptive effect of political power can perhaps convey the enormous stress that tyrannical political power can cause at the micro and macro levels of a nation-state. The classic fight-flight-freeze stress reaction is magnified by the stark reality of the actual physical danger, and enormous emotional cost, that comes with ruling a country with an iron fist. An absolute ruler is nearly always unloved, feared, and only forcibly respected by his immediate entourage and of course even more so by his countrymen at large. This must be Mr. Hosni Mubarak’s plight right now, as his country of Egypt is in the throes of a more or less peaceful, and some say long overdue, revolution to overthrow his 40-year-old quasi-dictatorship. How is he coping?

The 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak is nothing if not a survivor of trauma. A seemingly perennial victim of acute traumatic stressors, he has survived three wars, an Islamic uprising and multiple assassination attempts. His beloved 12-year-old grandson, Muhammad, died suddenly of a brain aneurism. He came to power on October 7, 1981 when the president of Egypt, Mr. Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated not three feet away from then-vice president Mr. Mubarak in a hail of gunfire and grenades. It is possible that, since that day, Mr. Mubarak may suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This seminal traumatic event, and the others that followed, may have engendered in Mr. Mubarak a strong desire for safety and stability above all else. In the current circumstances, he has reacted to the calls for his resignation in true-to-character fashion with a staunch change-resistant response, which one Arab official has called, “his reflex adherence to the status quo.”

It is perhaps not coincidental that President Obama told reporters he believes that Mr. Mubarak’s decision not to seek reelection may represent an important “psychological break” that could transition the Egyptian president out of power. The decision must not have come easily for Mr. Mubarak, and must have required a significant departure from his usual modus operandi of maintaining the safety of the status quo.

Mr. Mubarak appears to have rationalized his deep-seated aversion to change and his need to ensure survival and safety for himself, his family and the country he rules, with a near-absolute belief that he is the only person who can guarantee Egypt’s political, economic and social stability. It is nothing short of a psychological drama that he is now the focus and the very symbol of Egyptian crisis, the very instigator of chaos on the streets and political and economic turmoil.

For 40 years, Mr. Mubarak has lived in splendid isolation from danger in the presidential palace in Cairo or at his private residence in the seaside community of Sharm el Sheik, both heavily guarded by a corps of bodyguards. His acquaintances describe him as a man who does not show emotion, who can be forceful and aggressive in pursuing his views, but maintains a near-absolute control over the privacy of his feelings. As if the world around him was just too dangerous to risk betraying the slightest hint of weakness.