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25 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:00pm

Hosni Mubarak’s death changes little for Egypt

The former president's successors have done little to change the systems that kept him in power for three decades.

By Maria Golia

In Egypt, time has long been divided into eras bearing the name and imprint of a man. The era of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, born May 4, 1928, ostensibly ended in 2011, when he was forced to relinquish his thirty-year presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt after a popular uprising. Born in a Nile Delta farming village to an illiterate mother and a father who worked as a court clerk, Mubarak’s youthful ambitions were considerable, but being president was not one of them. Once he had gained office however, it seemed only death could take it away from him, and death itself seemed reluctant.

Following his sentencing to life imprisonment, in June 2012, as an accomplice to the killing of peaceful protesters by security forces, there were rumors that he had fallen, hit his head and was in a coma. But these were largely dismissed. Mubarak was strong as a bull, had never gone to prison in the first place and was probably living in Saudi Arabia, many said. As the only president most Egyptians had ever known, he had acquired an almost mythic indestructibility: if only the good die young, the logic ran, then Mubarak might live forever.

Young Hosni attended primary and secondary school in the farming village of Kafr el-Meselhah in the Delta governorate of Menoufia, a rural bastion of Egyptian patriarchal traditions. He graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1949, an elite institution that had only begun accepting poor and middle-class youths such as himself in 1938. His degree in military sciences was followed by another in aviation science from the Air Force Academy at Bilbays, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1950. The 30-year-old Mubarak was teaching at the Air Force Academy when he married 18-year old Suzanne Thabet, the sister of one of his students, in 1959. Suzanne’s mother was a Welsh nurse, her Egyptian father a well-traveled, successful doctor. The Thabets’ patrician lifestyle surely impressed Mubarak, but his social standing would soon eclipse that of his in-laws.

In 1964 to 1965, the young couple spent a year apart while Mubarak completed his postgraduate studies and pilot training in the Soviet city of Frunze, now Bishkek, the capital of  Kyrgyzstan. His service as flight commander of the TU 16 Air Force Brigade during the 1967 Six Day War prompted President Gamal Abdel Nasser to appoint him director of the Air Force Academy and task him with rebuilding Egypt’s air fleet, destroyed on the ground by Israeli bombers. By 1972 Mubarak was commander-in-chief of Egypt’s Air Force, tasked with helping Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, plan Egypt’s retaliation.

The October War of 1973 against Israel, also known as the Yom Kippur War, bolstered Sadat’s popularity, for which he rewarded his fellow officers. The Mubaraks had dreamed of an ambassadorial posting in London and were surprised in 1975 when Hosni was appointed vice president. Sadat championed Mubarak for several reasons. Both came from modest families in the Menoufia region, Sadat knew he could work Mubarak hard and, since he lacked charisma, Mubarak would never upstage him. Mubarak was soon Sadat’s envoy to America, China, Syria and Iraq, while gradually taking over the day-to-day management of state affairs that the president felt were beneath him. Sadat’s ego was inflated by the international acclaim that accompanied his role in the Camp David Peace talks, though some at home called his dealings with the Israelis treason. While Sadat villa-hopped around Egypt by helicopter, hosting celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and making them gifts of items from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Mubarak presided over cabinet meetings, monitored the security apparatus and served as vice president of the ruling National Democratic Party, which was founded by Sadat in 1978.

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On 6 October 1981, at the annual victory day parade, Mubarak saw the 63-year-old Sadat gunned down meters from where he stood. Eleven people were killed and 28 wounded in a barrage of bullets fired at close range by army officer and Islamic Jihad member Khalid Islambouli and his two accomplices. A blood-spattered Mubarak emerged physically unscathed and president of the republic.  He acted swiftly, imposing the Emergency Law, which sidestepped the constitutional right of due process. He had Islamists suspected of militant activity arrested and Sadat’s assassins summarily hung. He also fired Sadat’s chief ministers, prosecuted Sadat’s wealthy half-brother for corruption and had Sadat’s luxurious weekend house beside the pyramids bulldozed.

In photographs from his early presidency, Mubarak smiles broadly when cutting ribbons on factories and new infrastructure projects that he initiated, including the Cairo Metro, Africa’s first underground railway. Where Sadat had worn flashy, gold-trimmed military uniforms (and sometimes even a pharaonic sceptre), Mubarak wore a dark suit and aviator sunglasses. With his wife and two sons, Alaa and Gamal, he presented the image of a modern, hard-working family man, serious and dedicated, easing comfortably into power. Neither witty nor urbane, he was instead respected for his low profile, his brawny physique and stern brow. In 1987 he was re-elected by referendum to a second six-year term in office.  

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A state publication that year lauded Mubarak’s “important role in favourably changing the course of politics and western opinion regarding Egypt.” Ronald Reagan, who called him a “close friend and partner in peace ” was the one of six consecutive US presidents (beginning with Richard Nixon) with whom Mubarak maintained cordial relations. He re-established diplomatic and trade ties with Arab leaders who had been alienated by Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, and forged a strong working relationship with China.

I shook Mubarak’s hand in Dallas, Texas in the late 1980s, after his speech to the local Chamber of Commerce, a gathering of oil tycoons and defence industry CEOs who gave him a ten-gallon hat and a pair of pointy boots. His message, of Egypt’s importance for America and vice versa, was delivered in accented but fluent English.

In 1993 Mubarak was re-elected for a third term with a reported 96.3 percent of the yes-no referendum vote. Economic reforms aimed at attracting investment, which included tax holidays, land giveaways and subsidised fuel for factory owners, began showing results. Egypt was hailed in the financial press as “the tiger on the Nile”. By the late 1990s Cairo had an internet café on every corner and the banks of the Nile groaned beneath the weight of sumptuous, marble-clad hotels bought by Gulf Arabs. With the backing of a Saudi investor, Mubarak launched the Toshka-New Valley megaproject in 1997, which aimed to reclaim two million feddans (8,400 square kilomteres) of the southwestern desert with water from Lake Nasser. Billed as a solution to the land, water and food shortages threatening a population that increased from 59 to 86 million during Mubarak’s tenure, the sketchily planned project soon foundered, but its grandiosity temporarily boosted public optimism in Egypt’s future.

Throughout the privatisations of the 1990s, part of the “open market” reforms favored by Mubarak’s son Gamal, a coterie of foreign and domestic corporations prospered on the backs of Egypt’s underpaid and ill-used workers. The Emergency Law was never lifted, granting carte blanche to a well-financed and increasingly brutal security apparatus.

Mubarak grew more remote. Assassination plots in 1992 and 1993 failed but the 1995 attempt on Mubarak’s life in Addis Ababa, mounted by Khalid Islambouli’s younger brother, Shawki, destroyed several armour-plated vehicles in the presidential cavalcade. Mubarak was unhurt. 

The outpouring of sycophancy in editorials and paid-for newspaper ads in the state press that marked Mubarak’s twentieth anniversary in office in 2001 had long since become standard procedure on presidential birthdays and national holidays. In articles with titles like “Twenty years of love” and “Sacrifice without limit” Mubarak was hailed as “solid as a mountain” and “an angel in the form of a president” to whom Egyptians owed their fervent thanks. Libraries, airports, town squares, streets, a metro station and over 500 schools were named after Mubarak. High-school textbooks described him as “a protector of the poor”.

In the early 1980s, I asked Egyptians what they thought of their new president and they said “we don’t know him; we have to wait and see.” They knew him better by 2005, when he won his fifth term of office in Egypt’s first multi-party elections, which offered no viable contestants but helped sustain a necessary illusion for the president that he was loved – and for Egyptian citizens, that they were free to choose.  People had grown used to Mubarak. So long as he was around, he could be blamed for everything that was wrong with their lives. His tenacity offered a paradoxical comfort, providing a sense of continuity otherwise absent in modern life.

In 2007, when Mubarak reportedly remarked to President George W. Bush that he was “incapable of change, so let’s leave this to the next generation” he was probably alluding to his son Gamal, by then the National Democratic Party’s deputy secretary general and head of its policy committee.

Gamal’s suitability as his father’s successor separated Egypt into two camps: on the one side Egypt’s small, close-knit elite, who felt he had protect their shared privilege, and on the other side, nearly everyone else. Mubarak’s failure to appoint a vice president made the issue of succession critical, especially after the sudden death of his 12-year old grandson in 2009, which shook his health badly. In July 2010, while in Germany visiting Angela Merkel, Mubarak underwent an emergency gall bladder operation, an event followed anxiously in the local press, as was his full and robust recovery. A joke circulating in Cairo in those days had god telling Mubarak that the time had come to bid his people farewell, to which he replied, “Really? Where are they going?” 

Mubarak’s grip on the presidency was an alloy of temperament, the long, unquestioned exercise of power (bolstered by the support of international allies) and cultural mores that stress deference to authority. Like Sadat, Mubarak eventually conflated himself with the state itself.

From the circumstances that had placed him in office and the domestic terrorism of the early 1990s, Mubarak had long been willing to curtail civil rights in exchange for security. But the only political power this left to the people was the danger they might represent as a group protesting, and after three decades of disappointment they finally used it.

When Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, after eighteen days of mass protests, Egyptians shed tears not for the man but for the years they had spent in his parentheses. But the grey area of the Mubarak era, the self-serving autocratic power exercised with near total public compliance was, however, left unexamined. In the months following the uprising, the only gesture of recognition towards an oppressive past was the effacement of Mubarak’s name from the metro station, schools and airports.

The paternalist edifice Mubarak had upheld stood firm as the Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi was elected in June 2012.  The Brothers had been fighting Mubarak for so long that they had become his mirror image. In a single year they arrived at the same hubristic precipice it had taken Mubarak three decades to reach. On June 30, 2013, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces ousted Morsi, amid avid public support and raucous nationwide celebrations, as if military rule was something new to look forward to. In March, 2017 at the age of 88, Mubarak was released after six years of detention in a comfortable army hospital, his life sentence overturned by appeal. Some of those arrested for hastening the end of his regime in Tahrir Square were still in prison.

General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, scion of the military establishment – the country’s largest landowner and the cornerstone of its economy – now holds the reins of state and his regime has surpassed Mubarak’s in silencing opposition.  A reported 500 death sentences were handed out in 2018 alone for a variety of spuriously adjudicated offenses.  In April 2019, parliament approved constitutional amendments  broadening the military’s power and enabling Sisi to hold office until 2030.  In the run-up to the required referendum on the amendments, scheduled just three days after parliament’s approval, 34,000 websites sites opposing the amendment were shut down.

Had Hosni Mubarak died in prison in 2011, the reaction would have been different. His passing would have provoked emotions from nostalgia to vindictive joy, though some Egyptians would have been unwilling to believe he was dead at all. Now that it has finally happened, it is indifference, especially among the young. To the unemployed and undereducated youth who constitute huge swathes of Egypt’s population of 100 million, the news changes little, and the fact that Mubarak is dead does not mean that his era is at an end.

Maria Golia is the author of Photography and Egypt (2010) and Cairo City of Sand (2004). She writes for the Middle East Institute and is Middle East reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement.