The Mubarak legacy

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 26 Feb 2020


Egypt’s longest-serving president died almost nine years to the day after he stepped down.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, passed away on Tuesday 25 February, weeks before his 92nd birthday on 4 May.

Mubarak left office on 11 February 2011 after 18 days of protests. Demonstrations began on 25 January with protesters first demanding the removal of Interior Minister Habib Al-Adli and then for Mubarak himself to step down.

Mubarak came to office in October 1981, two weeks after his predecessor Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated during a military parade to mark the 6 October War.

“My name is Hosni Mubarak” was how Mubarak answered a foreign journalist who asked whether he would stick to Sadat’s Western alignment or follow Gamal Abdel-Nasser and take Egypt back into the Soviet orbit of influence.

Mubarak with late grandson Mohamed

For 30 years Mubarak lived up to his word. He kept the close relations that Egypt had established with the US in the wake of the peace treaty with Israel but also reached out to the Eastern Block until the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Mubarak observed the peace treaty to the last letter of its text — first in the political and security context and later in the cultural and economic context — though he refused the repeated appeals of Israeli prime ministers to visit Israel. The line he took in public and in private meetings was that when the Palestinian cause is resolved he would visit but not one day before.

The only exception he made was in November 1995 when for a few hours he joined other world leaders at the funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who had been assassinated by an extremist Israeli settler. At the time Mubarak told reporters that he lamented the death of Rabin who was someone who could have reached a viable peace with the Palestinians.

Mubarak worked hard to promote a comprehensive peace deal, first with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then with his successor Mahmoud Abbas. His role as a mediator is variously viewed: some argue it showed an understanding of the post-Cold War reality in which the US was the single super power; others say he could have pushed much more had he not wanted to play it safe for the sake of good relations with the US.

US diplomats regularly said Washington appreciated Mubarak’s role in facilitating peace talks between the Arabs and Israel. Mubarak had successfully restored Egypt’s position at the heart of the Arab world after Arab states severed relations with Cairo following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Privately, and then publicly, Mubarak would say that he had heard, first as Sadat’s vice president and then as president, several Arab leaders arguing that sooner or later there would have to be political negotiations for peace.

With his family

Mubarak, who had served in the 1967 War, was always open about his assessment of the costs of a new military confrontation between Egypt and Israel, or between other Arab countries and Israel. It was too high to contemplate. He was convinced that when it came to managing the Arab-Israeli struggle Sadat had made more realistic choices than Nasser. He nonetheless ended the anti-Nasser media campaign that prevailed during the last years of Sadat’s rule. Instead, he established a tradition of remembering Nasser and Sadat with equal gratitude in his public speeches.

In off-the-record chats with presidential reporters Mubarak would often refer to the War of Attrition, in which he took part under Nasser, as a momentous step towards the October crossing. And he recalled the October War with great pride, including his own role in it.

What Mubarak carried over from Nasser’s legacy was an acute sensitivity, at least in the first decade of his 30-year rule, to the economic challenges facing poorer sections of the population. For years Mubarak was reluctant to adopt the kind of economic programmes promoted by the International Monetary Fund and when he finally bowed to the advice of his aides in the early 1990s he insisted on a very slow process, especially when it came to the elimination of subsidies.

In the third and last decade of his rule Mubarak signed up to more fundamental economic reforms but still took a firm stance against some of the advice proffered by his aides who by then included his younger son Gamal, a former banker who had been appointed to a senior position in the National Democratic Party (NDP). He refused to allow the Egyptian currency to float freely and backed away from draconian cuts in subsidies. Instead he opted to open the economy to more foreign investment and adopted policies intended to encourage investors.

one of the latest photos of Mubarak with wife Suzanne and grandson Omar

Essential services, including health and education, were mostly overlooked. Mubarak often blamed their decline during his time in office on population growth. His critics, however, accused the state, in its embrace of neo-liberal economic policy, of deliberately neglecting public services.

One thing Mubarak did share with both Nasser and Sadat was an unspoken conviction that his time in office should be open-ended.

When he was first sworn in Mubarak announced he would serve two terms and no more. In the end, faced with the January uprising, he had to be eased from office. The pressure mounted as a growing number of capitals concluded that time had run out for Mubarak: his previously strong grip had loosened, and the promotion of his son Gamal through the ranks of the NDP was causing consternation in many sectors of Egyptian society.

Mubarak also shared Nasser and Sadat’s penchant for authoritarian rule though this was not clear when he first took office. In early press interviews Sadat’s successor had promised greater political openness though little changed in the first two decades of his presidency.

As the influence of his son Gamal grew, and with him that of a high-profile group of neo-liberal ministers including Youssef Boutros Ghali, Rachid Mohamed Rachid and Mahmoud Mohieddin, some space did open up though it was strenuously opposed by Mubarak’s influential interior minister Al-Adli.

With world leaders

The IT revolution was in full swing and social media arrived in Egypt. The more reactionary members of the regime viewed such untrammelled exchange of information as a huge mistake.

In 2005 Mubarak decided to allow multi-candidate presidential elections. He stood against a handful of political non-entities except, perhaps, for Ayman Nour, a young and ambitious member of the Wafd Party who had had a career in journalism before joining parliament and becoming one of the most followed MPs.

Mubarak won the election. In the wake of his victory he allowed the opposition greater space in the state-run media and the creation of independent media outlets and TV channels. These developments, though, went hand-in-hand with draconian security policies.

Violations of human rights were being covered more and more in social media. Two cases, that of Emad Al-Kebir, a taxi driver from Alexandria, and Khaled Said, a young activist from the same city, both tortured to death by the police, fed growing public anger.

With the economy continuing to lag, increased attention paid to human rights violations and a growing perception that Gamal was being groomed to take over from his father, Mubarak was losing popular support. His wife Suzanne was also being roundly criticised in many quarters for adopting an ever-more prominent public role.

During the 18 days of demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square and then spread across Egypt’s governorates, chants were taken up against Mubarak and his closest aides, including Al-Adli and the then head of the Shura Council Safwat Al-Sherif, but also against his son Gamal and wife Suzanne.

With Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas

Ahmed Ezz, a business tycoon and leading figure in the NDP, was also a focus of the fury of protesters. As the engineer of the 2010 parliamentary elections, marred by rigging that was not even disguised, Ezz is often blamed for provoking the public outrage that ended in Mubarak’s fall. Many former members of the Mubarak regime argue, however, that despite Ezz’s blatant disregard of the public’s sensibilities during the 2010 elections the regime would not have imploded had the revolution in Tunisia not succeeded in forcing Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia, or without the role of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Egyptian diplomat who, after retiring from his post in 2009 as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt and began to openly oppose the Mubarak regime.

ElBaradei’s presence reinforced already active opposition movements like 6 April which had called for a public strike in 2007, Kefaya, a coalition of political opposition groups that staged large public protests, and We Are All Khaled Said, a Facebook page that highlighted human rights violations.

With Yasser Arafat

According to several ministers who served during Mubarak’s last year in office, the president believed Washington had a role in his downfall: since 2008, they say, he had “had a sense” the Americans wanted him out of the way.

Starting in 2009 Mubarak’s performance was subject to careful scrutiny in many world capitals. It was thought he might be getting too old for the job, too demoralised by the sudden death of a favourite grandchild, and that his health had been badly compromised by gallbladder cancer which had required surgical intervention in Germany.

The January Revolution though, cannot be reduced to a response to the last few years of Mubarak’s three decades in office: in the end it demonstrated the public’s aspiration for a fairer and freer society.

Mubarak’s decision to step down was made public by the then chief of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman in a brief announcement on Egyptian TV. Millions rejoiced in the streets while Mubarak moved to Sharm El-Sheikh where he planned to retire. He was accorded little breathing space before being prosecuted, along with his sons, on corruption charges. Ultimately, the prosecutions would fail except in one instance. Mubarak was found guilty of embezzling funds earmarked for the restoration of presidential palaces.


Mubarak and his sons may have been judged innocent of the majority of charges against them but the overwhelming impression many retain of his years in office is of overwhelming corruption and graft.

During his 30 years as president of Egypt and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Mubarak made almost no appearance in uniform. Yet it is perhaps in his role as an army officer — hardworking, efficient and dedicated to serving the flag — that he will be most fondly remembered. Yes, he was the president removed by nation-wide protests but he was also one of the most prominent faces of the October War, a seminal moment in Egypt’s modern history and one of which Mubarak was the last surviving leading figure.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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