CAIRO (Reuters) - Five months ago, the worldwatched in awe as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, demanding the departure of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Now, in groups numbering in the hundreds, Mubarak supporters gather, as they did late last month in a wealthy Cairo suburb, to chant: “We love you, president.”
Dozens were injured in clashes that broke out later that day, June 24, between Mubarak sympathisers and opponents in what was otherwise a minor blip in Egypt’s push to enact reforms and open up to greater democracy.
But frustration with the pace of those reforms, plus crushing economic realities, have made some Egyptians feel that if they don’t want to turn back the clock, some aspects of Mubarak’s rule were not as bad as they seemed at the time.
“I work in tourism, and now my livelihood is at stake because all those continuous protests have scared tourists away,” Karim Sweilam, 43, an employee of a tourism firm, said.
Egypt’s vital tourism industry provides one in eight jobs and accounts for 10 percent of gross domestic product, but the turbulent weeks before and after Mubarak’s ouster drove away tourists from beaches and the pyramids.
Unemployment, one of the triggers of the uprising, continues to rise after the political upheaval shattered the economy, a sure way to dispel people’s dreams.
“Whenever people become disillusioned with revolutions — and that always happens inevitably — they tend to look upon the past with some nostalgia,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Centre, said.
“There is a risk that if the economic situation stays stagnant and people continue to be out of jobs or get fired, then there is a real risk that people will look back and say, ‘Well, maybe things were not as bad as we thought under Mubarak’.”
Always confident and never showing a trace of doubt, Mubarak liked to be seen as a benign and tireless leader protecting the security and stability of his country and serving the welfare of its people.
Now 83, he is due to stand trial on August 3 for the killing of protesters and abuse of power. He has not appeared in public since stepping down and is now in a hospital bed in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh but has denied any wrongdoing.
His supporters argue that he saved Egypt from chaos after militants assassinated his predecessor in 1981, kept Egypt out of wars, restored relations with the Arab world after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and, after long delays, allowed his government to open up the economy to stimulate growth.
“We shouldn’t take the peace and stability we enjoyed for 30 years under Mubarak for granted,” Sally Milad, a 26-year-old graphic designer, too young to know any other president, said.
“He deserves a dignified exit because he spared a lot of lives when he chose to step down, unlike Gaddafi in Libya or Bashar (al-Assad) in Syria whose stubbornness has claimed a lot of innocent lives.”
A bloody revolt against Gaddafi has claimed thousands of lives while human rights groups say the death toll in Syria is over 1,300 and 12,000 have been detained.
Mubarak managed to suppress a long-running Islamist insurgency in southern Egypt in the 1990s after 1,200 people were killed.
For some Egyptians, putting the former air force chief on trial is not a pressing priority among a long list of demands for political and economic reforms in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of inflation in food prices.
“As much as I’m happy that Mubarak finally no longer rules Egypt after all the corruption we’ve been exposed to, I sympathise with him because he is an old man,” housewife NagwaHassan, 57, said.
Much of the pressure to prosecute Mubarak stemmed from protest movements and the opposition, not necessarily from average Egyptians.
A million-person protest is planned on Friday, called by secular activists unhappy with the way the military council has been running Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster.
Activists complain that recent events, including the use of force by police against demonstrators, court rulings clearing three ministers in Mubarak’s administration of graft as well as the release of some police officers accused of killing protesters, went against reforms.
“The law is above everyone, and justice has to prevail on all people, young or old,” said Mahmoud Ghzolan, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has said it would join Friday’s protests.
Mubarak’s opponents say he did not follow up with practical steps to make Egypt more democratic, and his chronic failure to change a corrupt and an authoritarian political system caught up with him after being at the helm for almost 30 years.
His critics argue that political reforms were drawn up to ensure Mubarak and his allies kept an iron grip on power, while many feared the establishment of a dynasty of latter-day pharaohs if his politician son Gamal had come to power.
“This is how corruption developed because the biggest guy in power was the biggest thief ... The country was in the hands of people who not only mismanaged it but also abused its people,” said an Egyptian banker who did not want to be named.
Mubarak’s government, in recent years, liberalised the economy in a way that won praise from foreign investors but came at the expense of the poor, creating an even bigger wealth gap.
“He (Mubarak) should get punished for all the wrong he did to this country. Why should he get a special treatment?” university student Magdy Nabil, 22, said.
“I just hope the military no longer treats him with leniency. He has a lot of loyalists in the military.”
The military’s response is that Mubarak as a leader had his strengths and weaknesses, and courts will have the final say.
“No one is above the rule of law, and the armed forces don’t intervene in such matters,” an army source said.
Reporting by Sherine El Madany; Editing by Michael Roddy