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The coincidental rise and momentous fall of Hosni Mubarak

Ousted president Hosni Mubarak will go down in history as the first Arab head of state to be tried before an ordinary court in his own country

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 17 Apr 2011
Hosni Mubarak
Egypt's deposed President Hosni Mubarak often said that he was taken by surprise when he was appointed vice president in April 1975. In a book entitled My Word for History, Mubarak said: “I was completely taken aback by late President Anwar El-Sadat informing me that he had selected me to be his vice president.” 
According to Mubarak, “I never expected it and all I hoped was to be Egypt's ambassador in London, where I could take a rest at the end of my harsh military career.”

Vice President Hosni Mubarak, however, became president of Egypt on 14 October, following the assassination of Anwar El-Sadat on 6 October 1981. Unexpectedly for all, Mubarak, who was selected by chance to be vice-president, stayed in power in Egypt for 30 years, the longest-serving ruler in Egypt's modern history, next only to Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, who died in 1849.

Many local and foreign political analysts believe Mubarak's three-decade rule can be divided into three stages as follows:

Phase I: Reconcilliation (1981-1990)

During the first 10 years of his rule and after the death of his predecessor, Mubarak pursued a policy he had committed to upon his inauguration: one of reconciliation, both at home and abroad. 

And Mubarak's performance in this period was relatively positive. He released the hundreds of opposition leaders Sadat had imprisoned in a sweeping clampdown a month before his assassination, allowed fairly competitive parliamentary elections in 1984 and 1987, and gave more freedom to the press. The banned Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties — particularly the liberal-oriented Wafd Party — entered parliament with a relatively large number of seats.

In his inauguration of the newly-elected People's Assembly in 1984, Mubarak vowed to stay in power for no more than two terms, emphasising that he believed in giving younger generations and new blood a chance to govern Egypt.

In addition, Mubarak maintained the political line of Sadat, which had been one of reconciliation with Israel and strategic alliance with the United States. This allowed Egypt regain control of all of its Israeli occupied land in Sinai in accordance with the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. 

Mubarak also managed to restore severed ties with Arab countries, which had boycotted Egypt after the peace treaty with Israel.

Mubarak's economic policies at this stage, however, were a complete shambles. The Egyptian pound suffered several depreciations against the dollar while the bill of imports soared, while scandals involving companies established by Islamists harmed the economy.

By the end of this period, Mubarak began to develop strong authoritarian tendencies. This began in 1989 with firing his old friend and one of Egypt's most influential ministers of defence, Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala. This was followed by appointing Zakaria Azmi as his chief of staff, who exercised strong influence and later became one Mubarak's main tools in imposing increasingly dictatorial policies.

Phase II: The battle with Islamist militants (1990-2000)

In 1990, Mubarak supported UN sanctions against Iraq, after Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. He joined a US-led effort aimed at pushing Hussein out of Kuwait and in return Egypt was relieved of much of its debts, estimated at that time at $90 billion. But while economic conditions slightly improved, due the relief of debt and the performance of the Atef Sedki government (1986-1996), political conditions deteriorated. 

Opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted parliamentary elections in 1990 in objection to the refusal of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to change the electoral law and provide guarantees for free elections. Indeed, parliamentary elections in 1990 were heavily rigged in favour of the NDP, and Mubarak lost a major part of his political legitimacy. He began to develop indifference towards the demands of the opposition, not to mention that he reneged on his earlier promise not to stay in power for more than two terms. 

Mubarak was reelected for a third term in 1993. A few months after his reelection, Egypt faced a wave of Islamist militant attacks. This caused greater spending on police forces and anti-terror squads, thus reinforcing the powers of security agencies that were accused of violating human rights. 

Mubarak only just escaped an assassination attempt in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in June 1995 while Islamist militancy culminated in the 1997 Luxor attack that killed some 52 European tourists. Mubarak responded by firing Interior Minister Hassan El-Alfy and appointing Habib El-Adly in his stead. El-Adly was able to crush Islamist militants but the price was very high. Repressive police practices became rampant, and El-Adly turned the State Security Investigations (SSI) apparatus into “a state within a state”. 

The SSI apparatus wielded great powers and influence in terms of rigging elections, disrupting political parties and practising torture in prisons and police stations against ordinary citizens and opposition leaders such as Ayman Nour, chairman of the liberal Al-Ghad Party. 

In 1999, Mubarak was reelected for a fourth term, getting close to 100 per cent of the vote. The parliamentary elections in 1995 were also manipulated by Mubarak's State Security police in favour of his ruling NDP, with businessmen gaining a large number of seats in what came to be known as “a marriage between money and power”.

In addition to Mubarak's authoritarian policies, his government embarked upon implementing a massive privatisation programme that caused much harm to ordinary citizens in the form of greater unemployment and more living under the poverty line.

Phase III: Setting the stage for dynastic succession (2000-2010)

In 2000, Mubarak was 73 years old. Until then he had refused to appoint a vice president while opting much of the time to stay in the exclusive Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, over 500km from the headache of Cairo. Mubarak lived in a large palace built for him by Hussein Salem, a former intelligence officer who monopolised the sale of oil and natural gas to Israel.

All of a sudden, and to the surprise of all Egyptians, Mubarak appointed his younger son, Gamal, to the NDP's secretariat-general. This fed speculation that his son is being groomed to inherit power in a father-to-son succession scenario. In a very short time, Gamal wielded unprecedented political powers, becoming the second man in Egypt, and sometimes the country's de-facto president. 

Mubarak and his son's denials that they had planned for succession never gained credibility amongst Egyptians. Moreover, Gamal's policies fed hatred for Mubarak the father. Opposition to these policies reached a climax in 2004 when then US President George W Bush put pressure on Hosni Mubarak to embrace democracy. Street protests began to proliferate, with large numbers of political activists organising in movements calling for an end to Mubarak's rule. One of these — the Kifaya (Enough) movement — raised the slogan “No to the extension of Mubarak's rule for a fifth term in 2005, and no to his son inheriting power!” 

Other movements were later formed, most prominent of which was the 6 April Movement, which staged demonstrations in the industrial city of Mahalla Al-Kobra in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Mubarak's old age and ailing health made many believe that he was aiming to speed up the dynastic succession scenario. Mubarak reneged on his reformist policies, imposing strict conditions on those who might wish to run for the presidency. He swept the 2005 presidential elections, with his son and his business associates orchestrating his presidential campaign. 

In 2007, Mubarak's authoritarian instincts went so far as drafting 34 constitutional amendments that revoked full judicial supervision of parliamentary elections, granted him greater powers to refer civilians to military courts, and imposed hard conditions that made it near impossible for independents (a grouping to which the major and officially banned opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, belonged) to run for office.

In addition to these politically despotic policies, the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif — a computer engineer who was appointed by Gamal Mubarak — provoked outrage among ordinary citizens and the poor classes because of its neoliberal economic policies. Labour protests proliferated on the streets and in front of the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament.

The straw that broke the camel's back came in November 2010 when Gamal Mubarak and his business associates, notably steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, orchestrated the worst rigging yet of parliamentary elections. Islamist and secular opposition forces were completely stripped of seats won in parliament in 2005. Mubarak, whose health deteriorated further after surgery in Germany in March 2010, refused to respond to the opposition's complaints about the elections. 

In opening the new parliament in December 2010, Mubarak poked fun at the attempts of some opposition figures to form “a shadow parliament”, joking: “Let them waste time.”

The rigging of elections and the neoliberal policies of the Nazif government accelerated the fall of Mubarak. When the first wave of the youth revolution stormed the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez on 25 January, Mubarak, his son Gamal and associates disappeared. 

Isolated in Sharm El-Sheikh and battered by the bloody protests on 28 January (the Friday of Rage), Mubarak appeared on television, deciding to fire Nazif, at last appoint a vice-president after refusing for 30 years, and asking parliament amend the constitution so as to prevent the "president for life" scenario. 

It was, however, too late for Mubarak. All the political forces that were isolated by him and his son united against him, insisting that he must leave, and that he had lost legitimacy. Not only Mubarak was deposed from power, but he was sent to prison, registering himself in Egyptian and Arab world history as the first president to face judicial trial on corruption and murder charges.

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