Hosni Mubarak was born in Egypt at a time when the past really was a different country. In the 1920s and ’30s, Cairo and Alexandria were centres of the world. Egyptian author Tarek Osman said the cities “dazzled foreigners, seduced visitors, educated the region’s elite, bred art and culture, hosted thousands of immigrants from Greece, Italy and Armenia as well as tens of thousands of Jews, and shaped a highly liberal, open society taking its inspiration from Paris and Rome.”
Today, as the Egyptian president’s reign lurches to its inevitable conclusion amid an unprecedented public uprising, all this is gone.
“The country’s political system has descended to frightening levels of coercion, oppression and cruelty,” writes Osman in Egypt on the Brink, published last year. Egyptians are poor; almost one in three is illiterate; and even those with education struggle to find meaningful work. There “is not only a sense of confusion, resentment and rejection among Egyptians—especially the younger ones, but increasingly an overarching feeling of irreparable damage, a national defeat.”
Egypt’s standing in the world had already fallen when Mubarak began his rule. But as president for the last three decades, he must wear the blame for much of Egypt’s current state of affairs. And yet the country has suffered and declined for no discernible goals or strategy. Arab nationalism, peace with Israel, and aspiring to regional leadership were policies most strongly driven by his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has offered little but his continued and indefinite leadership.
It was Sadat who appointed Mubarak as his vice-president in 1975. Mubarak had earned some notoriety a couple of years earlier when, as commander-in-chief of the air force, he planned and directed an air campaign that contributed to what was arguably the Arab world’s most successful military strike against Israel, then occupying the Sinai Peninsula. But he never courted publicity. His stolid reserve contrasted sharply with Sadat’s exuberant flash, and according to the Princeton historian Robert Tignor, many in Egypt suspected Mubarak had been selected for vice-president because his mediocrity was not seen as threatening. He was seen as a “well-meaning but not particularly adept bureaucrat,” writes Tignor. But Sadat seemed to trust him.
“I want you to share my responsibilities,” the president told Mubarak when he appointed the air force commander to be his right-hand man in politics. “Nobody knows what the future holds for me, and the secrets of the state should not be in the hands of one man only.”
On Oct. 6, 1981, the two were standing together with other dignitaries on a parade reviewing stand when army officers who opposed Sadat’s peace deal with Israel, and who had obtained the blessing of an Islamist sheik, attacked the party with rifles and grenades. Sadat and 11 others died. Mubarak was wounded. Eight days later, the supposedly well-meaning and mediocre Mubarak was sworn in as president.
“His rise to power was, I think, unexpected for him,” says Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and knows Mubarak well. “He was a military person, rose to the top of the air force, but was then kind of shot out of a cannon into the vice-presidency. And then his rise to ultimate power came as the result of an assassination, not a plan on his part. So he’s very much shaped by this background that he’s been called to service, as opposed to the ambition of one who seizes power.”