Tuesday, 10 January 2012

What was Mubarak's finance minister doing at the London School of Economics?

Today (well, yesterday - it's late) - I was startled to see news unfolding in front of me at this LSE public lecture: "The Year of Egypt's Second Revolution, the balance sheet so far"

The lesson being: stay for the public questions, they're the best bit.

A girl to the left of the hall put up her hand to say something like: "I've been finding it difficult to concentrate on your lecture because Egypt's ex-finance minister is sitting in this room. How can he be sitting here - after so many people have died - when he is wanted by Interpol - how can he be sitting here in this audience?"

The audience peered around. Youssef Boutros-Ghali was in the room but he must've managed not to blush because at first, nobody was pointing him out. But he was - oh, definitely there. A few people clattered up the stairs at the back of the hall - I later learned that they'd stationed themselves at doorways, trying to arrange his arrest, but they met with resistance from LSE security who said that they had to respond to the 'threat' using the information they had available at the time.

But for those who wanted to confront him it was an electric discovery. "He's not that hard to recognise!"a group of them piped to me after the event. "We can't believe he's gone."

One of them rounded on me. "What's your take on this?"

"Um... I find it really funny that he's here. That he came to a lecture at the LSE to learn about the revolution in Egypt."

Somebody observed he could be having an existential crisis: "why am I here? Why has this happened?"

"Doesn't he know enough about the second revolution, that he feels he has to learn about it from a Harvard academic?"

"I wasn't even planning to come here today," she said. "I was trying to decide whether to go eat, or to go to the lecture, and I chose the lecture. He was HERE and now he's gone!"

It turns out Joe Quinn of the Guardian was also there and wrote this piece tonight: 'Anger over appearance of Ex-Egyptian finance minister at LSE lecture'

The Egyptian students' eager attempt at an arrest was thwarted by LSE security rules that give the insitution a 'duty of care' to any member of the audience who feels threatened.

According to Quinn's account, when the university realised that Youssef is wanted by Interpol for "fraud, fraud, fraud" they phoned the police but by this time the ex finance minister had got away in a taxi.

Now, in some ways it's not surprising that Boutros-Ghali was not only ushered quietly out under protection but treated with enormous respect within the lecture theatre itself, with the person alongside me whispering 'this is so inappropriate' when further questions mentioned the finance minister. Officialdom - even fugitive officialdom - has a tenacious quality of commanding respect.

Afterwards, protestors chanted 'shame on you! Shame on you' in the lobby of the New Academic Building while flustered security explained that he'd had limited information and a duty of care to all audience members and would behave in the same way if any member of the audience had been under such a threat. One of the students said that she was shocked by what was considered a threat and had been told by security that she couldn't stand outside with her phone ready to take a picture.

"If you felt intimidated by security at any time, I am sorry, we will address it."

"You acted to protect him from students," she said.
It reminded me of one of the historical revolutions cited during the lecture.

When the revolutionaries won, they walked among "the people" and found they were heckled and mobbed.

Twelve months later, they spoke from a podium and the people were not allowed anywhere near them. This was to be an authoritarian government.

The point made in the lecture is that every revolution is a "people's" revolution and afterwards, anything could happen. Professor Owen argued that we need to take an interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of a democracy because elections alone are never enough for democracy to function. In every revolution there is what he calls a 'military interest', but the definition could be broader, jockeying for position with other forces, seeking absolute power and protection from scrutiny.