Looking back at Mubarak's legacy

Mubarak will be remembered as an agile international operator but also as a president who balked at reforming a very sick economy.
Wednesday 26/02/2020
International connections. A 2009 file photo of late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (AP)
International connections. A 2009 file photo of late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (AP)

Hosni Mubarak was Egypt's ruler for more than 30 years. Views are mixed on his legacy. Some see him as a ruthless and corrupt autocrat who exited the political scene with ignominy; others prefer to remember the man who guided Egypt back into the mainstream of Arab affairs from which it had been ruthlessly ejected for making peace with Israel in 1979.

Mubarak died at 91 years of age and so, inevitably, his life had many facets.

Mubarak showed no mercy to those who had assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. They were hanged. Others, who had long languished in prison, were released and Mubarak was quick to promise reform and to crack down on corruption.

The Egyptians believed him at first, at a time when the very survival of the regime seemed at stake. In those years, reform seemed possible. All the more as, in the early 1970s, Mubarak, who was commander of the Air Force Academy and chief-of-staff with the rank of air vice-marshal, was a model officer. When the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser claimed power in 1952, toppling the monarchy, Mubarak was an Air Force Academy cadet.

He moved up the promotion ladder and, in 1973, played a central role in planning Egypt's military campaign to take back the Sinai Peninsula, which it lost to Israel in 1967. Although the 1973 war ended in failure, the bravery of the Egyptian forces and especially their stunning success in crossing the Suez Canal buoyed national morale and boosted the popularity of Sadat's presidency and the officers involved in the campaign.

Like Sadat, Mubarak was born in the Nile Delta region and his rural accent was much mocked by sophisticated Cairenes. However, Mubarak's bumpkin speech masked a sharp mind and strong ambition.

In public, Mubarak was impassive but in private he was more demonstrative, if not hot tempered. Those who knew him say had he brought to domestic affairs some of the flair and energy he devoted to international relations, he could have been a much better president. As it is, he shared the delusions of grandeur that bedevilled his predecessors, Sadat and Nasser.

His image was shattered when he was placed on trial in August 2011. The first Arab leader to be tried in his own country for embezzlement, he cut a rather pathetic figure.

Mubarak will be remembered for the stalwart lieutenant he proved to be to Sadat during the long, convoluted negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. When he succeeded Sadat, he proved to be a steady hand and cautious by nature.

After his accession to the presidency, he awarded himself three successive victories. Nominated in parliament by his own National Democratic Party, his presidential candidature was ratified by what amounted to a referendum with no opposition.

By 2005, he risked a multiparty poll and relaxed rules banning the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists won 40% of the vote and 20% of the seats in parliament. Their slogan -- “Islam is the solution” -- was often heard.

No such chances were taken in the presidential election that followed, however, and Mubarak scored 88.6% of the vote and had his liberal opponent Ayman Nour imprisoned and stripped of his parliamentary seat.

Mubarak's greatest failure was undoubtedly his refusal to reform Egypt’s economy. As foreign aid, notably from the United States, poured in after Camp David, tens of billions of dollars were spent on planes, helicopters, tanks and other military hardware.

Top military leaders were happy, the military occupied more and more economic space and corruption lurched out of control. Most Egyptians live in dire poverty and depend on huge handouts from the Gulf monarchies.

The failure to enact economic reform will continue to haunt Egypt. A poor country dependent on foreign aid can only speak with the voice of those countries that help it.

On the foreign front, Mubarak proved more imaginative. He got Sinai returned to Egypt in 1982 but the detente with Israel was a cold peace. Israel pressured Mubarak into getting more Arab countries to sign up for a regional settlement but ordinary people, there as elsewhere in the Arab world, could not and would not understand the continued occupation of Palestinian lands.

Israeli policies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories infuriated ordinary Egyptians and intellectuals alike.

The disturbances in Cairo in January 2011 took most observers by surprise, as had those in Tunis earlier that month. Israel and the United States were very worried that Egypt would fall into the hands of opposition forces who would tear up the peace treaty with Israel.

Washington condemned violent repression but dared not call on Mubarak to resign. The regime rested on the acquiescence of the mass of Egyptians and large outside help, notably US largesse and military backing. With street pressure mounting, the army moved after weeks of protest to remove Mubarak but did not relinquish the major levers of power.

Mubarak was forced to resign and stood trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2012, just before the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency. Acquitted on the charges of killing, he was released from military hospital custody three years ago.

Mubarak will be remembered as an agile international operator but a president who balked at reforming a very sick economy, a man who dreamed of his son succeeding him. He was encouraged in his delusions by Washington's tacit acceptance of Gamal, his son, succeeding him.

In many ways, he symbolises the corruption, arrogance and lack of vision of his peers who ruled the Arab world. His life started with promise but ended in shame and sadness.