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Hosni Mubarak: The rise and fall of a strongman

Tuesday marks 33 years since Mubarak was sworn in as president. Ahram Online looks back at a turbulent presidency

Amr Hassan, Tuesday 14 Oct 2014
Hosni Mubarak
Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak, center, and his sons Gamal, left and Alaa, right, sit inside a defendant's cage during a hearing in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: AP)
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Views: 3160

Tuesday marks 33 years exactly since Hosni Mubarak was sworn in as president of Egypt. Much has changed in the three decades since, and Mubarak is currently facing retrials on a number of charges related to his time in power, the most serious of which is causing the death of protesters in the January 25 Revolution.

Mubarak graduated from Egypt’s military academy in 1949, and graduated from aviation training a year later to join the Egyptian air force.

He also studied in the Soviet Union, studying at a number of military academies and returning to Egypt in 1964. After the Egyptian defeat in the six-day war in 1967, he led the army's aviation faculty until 1969, training a large number of pilots, before becoming commander of the air force.

"War hero"

Much of Mubarak’s reputation as a strong military man stemmed from his role in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when he led the first airstrike against Israeli forces on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.

Mubarak left his military post in 1975 when he was selected by then-president Anwar El-Sadat to be vice-president.

After the assassination of El-Sadat in 1981 by Islamist extremists, parliamentary speaker Sufi Abou Taleb became interim president until Mubarak was sworn in on 14 October 1981, after a popular referendum.

On the foreign policy side, Mubarak is widely viewed as having made some achievements. Firstly, Israel was forced to fully withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the border area of Taba was restored to Egyptian sovereignty during his presidency.

He also managed to return Egypt to its central role in the Arab world after tension following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. During the Mubarak era, there was diplomatic and economic normalisation with Israel, but the peace was a cold one.

Like his predecessor El-Sadat, Mubarak moved closer to the US and away from Russia, becoming a permanent US ally in the Middle East.

The beginnings of dissent

Egypt under Mubarak experienced a number of economic problems, particularly in the 1990s and in the first years of the 21st century. Rampant inflation and a rise in foreign debt impacted his popularity on the streets.

At the same time as the value of the Egyptian pound was sinking, the unemployment rate increased due to a highly criticised privatization plan. Public education also deteriorated, with a noticeable effect on the workforce.

For years, however, dissatisfaction was limited by the restrictions of the state of emergency to closed party meetings, cafes, and elite seminars.

The first major signs of dissent directed against Mubarak himself were demonstrations in 2005, led by a movement called Kefaya (‘Enough’). Kefaya called for the removal of Mubarak and denounced the assumed succession of his son Gamal to the presidency. In the same year, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in parliament, the biggest number of seats since their establishment.

Also in 2005, 34 constitutional articles were amended, criticised by some as a constitutional tailoring process in Mubarak’s favour.

Under the changes, multi-candidate presidential elections were now permitted, but with near-impossible conditions for would-be challengers. The head of Al-Ghad political party, Ayman Nour, took up the challenge and ran against Mubarak in that year’s elections, only to be publicly defamed and detained by police on charges of forging applications to establish the party.

Following these pioneering forms of opposition, there would be two major rebellions against Mubarak: one in 2008, and one in 2011.

In 2008, large labour movements in Mahalla industrial city launched strikes and protests.

The events started with a call for a general strike against the continuation of Mubarak in his post and against what were viewed as clear attempts to groom Gamal to be his successor. Despite the heavy-handed security, Mahalla was defiant, and police had to call in security forces from neighbouring cities to deal with the protests.

Scenes of protests, teargas, and burning tyres were widely broadcast on private television channels, and many viewers struggled to believe the scenes were from Egypt, not Gaza or some other conflict-ridden spot. In front of the cameras, the war-hero president’s picture was torn down and stamped on.

The 'soldiers' revolt'

However, the 2008 and 2011 protests were not the only times that the strongman's rule was threatened.

Known in the media as "the Central Security Forces events," the protests against Mubarak by police conscripts on 25 February 1986 threatened his presidency before he had even finished his first term.

The incident happened after a rumour circulated in Central Security Forces camps that the mandatory conscription term would be increased from three years to five years. The forces are normally recruited within the armed forces as part of Egypt’s mandatory military service, but are then sent to the interior ministry.

Soldiers protested in one camp in the Haram district in Giza and damaged a number of surrounding hotels and restaurants. Some residents of the area joined them. The demonstrations spread to most of the CSF camps in the capital and some in the governorates. The armed forces stepped in, blocked off the camps and disarmed the soldiers. Some decisions to improve the status of the soldiers followed.

Mubarak had started his rule by releasing 3,500 people who were detained during El-Sadat's time because of their criticism of the peace treaty with Israel, but he later saw thousands thrown in jail without charges in his long fight with Islamists.

In a general sense, the 1980s were better for the Muslim Brotherhood than the Sadat period, and they allied with Wafd Party in 1994 parliamentary elections.

There was no real conflict between Mubarak's regime and the Brotherhood until the beginning of the 2000s.

Nearing the end

The beginning of the end was in 2010, when the regime insisted on holding parliamentary elections with partial judicial supervision. The polls saw massive forgery in favour of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and in response the opposition formed a symbolic parliament to voice dissent. Mubarak commented: “let them have fun.”

The mass vote rigging coincided with the growing anger of Egyptian Christians after increasing attacks on Christians and churches, culminating in a deadly church bombing in Alexandria on 1 January 2011.

Around the same time, a young man in Alexandria was tortured and killed by police. Khaled Said’s case stirred public outrage against police brutality when activists on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter circulated a picture of his battered face to counter official reports that he died after swallowing a packet of drugs.

A Facebook page was started, named after Said, and it garnered one million 'likes' in a short span of time.

In January 2011, the Khaled Said Facebook page suggested protests on 25 January, an annual holiday in celebration of the police, and its members agreed at once.

Protests erupted on 25 and 26 January nationwide, with particular concentrated efforts in Cairo and Suez. Nothing happened on 27 January, but Egyptians held their breath for 28 January, branded by activists ‘the Friday of Rage.’

On the eve of 27 January, the regime gave orders to all mobile and landline companies to cut communications in order to decrease the numbers of protesters. But the next day, numbers started increasing as clashes with police intensified. By nightfall, police in Cairo had been overwhelmed by huge crowds of demonstrators and had fled, and Mubarak ordered the military to take control of the streets.

Mubarak gave a statement on television that night, announcing the resignation of the current cabinet, and saying that the protests were being used by saboteurs.

Meanwhile, protesters in Tahrir Square announced that their protests would continue until the downfall of the regime.

A mass march took place on Tuesday, putting the regime in a tight spot. Mubarak appeared on television the same night, announcing that he had appointed Omar Suleiman as vice president, and promising that he wouldn’t run for another presidential term, and none of his family members would stand for election.  

Mubarak also promised an investigation into the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Nonetheless, mass marches and protests continued until Mubarak made a third speech, saying that he had delegated Suleiman to take on his tasks, and disbanded parliament.

The speech infuriated protesters who had thought Mubarak would step down. They announced they would march to the presidential palace, but on 11 February Suleiman appeared on television and gave a thirty-second speech announcing that Mubarak had stepped down.

That night, the streets were full of jubilant Egyptians. Mubarak left the presidential palace, and shortly after, protesters left the streets.

Amid the festivities, many asked themselves the same question: Did 30 years really end in just 30 seconds?

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