Leading up to Egypt's most recent elections, support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was grotesque. Shouts of "Mubarak for life!" could be heard on the streets of Cairo, and it was all but decided that Mubarak would tack another six years onto his 18-year tenure at the helm of Egyptian politics. Now, two months later and several thousand miles away, Mahathir Muhammad seems poised to mimic Mubarak's performance. Could he be the Mubarak of the East?
In terms of political longevity, Mahathir is stride for stride with Mubarak. And as far as political style is concerned, he isn't that far from Mubarak either.
Now the Mubarak regime is, hands down, more repressive than Mahathir's. Mubarak has been jailing Muslim political activists and keeping them from the polls for years. But Mahathir has a heavy-handedness of his own that has most notably manifested itself in his handling of the Anwar Ibrahim affair. Mahathir just has more decorum in meting out his political agenda.
Take Monday's elections for instance. Mahathir had the power to call for the poll and did so unexpectedly, thus shutting out many voters due to voter registration restrictions. And of course there has been Mahathir's anti-Islam rhetoric that the media has gobbled up hand over fist as he has attempted to discredit legitimate Islamic political parties.
A Nov 27 Agence France Presse report quoted Mahathir as calling the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) "extremist" and its supporters "fanatics." And throughout the abbreviated eight-day campaign Mahathir's ruling National Front has raised the popular specter of "Islamic fundamentalism" warning that it would destroy Malaysia's pluralistic Chinese, Indian and Malay cultural milieu should PAS come to power.
This is of course a "smoke and mirrors" strategy to help Mahathir overcome the growing discontent in the Keletan province and other regions of Malaysia where PAS and Islamic politics in general are growing in popularity. It seems that the old rhetoric of Asian independence from the West and the World Bank/IMF is no longer sufficient. And as long as Anwar Ibrahim languishes in jail, he will feel the backlash from Anwar's not-so-inconsequential supporters.
Mahathir has also mimicked Mubarak in securing foreign support. After 18 years, this is really no feat and either of the two could sit down with most any foreign head of state and look credible. Mubarak has mastered the art of fence straddling; taking a U.S. paycheck with one hand while tossing out selective objections to the Middle East Peace process with the other. Mahathir has a juggling act of his own, which includes publishing a book harmlessly critical of the West every few years, making nice with China and speaking out against Islam in politics.
The only redeeming aspect of the Mubarak/Mahathir comparison is that at least under the Mahathir regime, there aren't yet stories of late night visits from the secret police. If that ever happens, Mahathir could indeed qualify as the "Mubarak of the East." In the meantime it will be interesting to see what other self-interest ploys Mahathir has up his sleeve.
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com