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Egypt’s Mubarak: A Non-Person Before and After Death

The virtual silence over his passing reflects how old, tired, and deferential to cronies he had become in later years.
Ousted president Mubarak's trial

Hosni Mubarak, who died 25 February at 91, was an improbable ruler of Egypt, and an even more unlikely leader to claim the mantle of Egypt’s longest reigning sovereign since the Muhammad Ali and his royal successors inaugurated the modern history of Egypt in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Mubarak was no visionary. His battles were not those of Free Officers led by the young colonel Gamal abed al-Nasser—independence from Britain and eradicating the discredited parliamentary system imposed by the British. Mubarak was wooden and lethargic, unlike Nasser, whose Voice of the Arabs carried his fiery and emotive speeches to the smallest hamlet. 

Nor was he, like Anwar Sadat, the architect of Egypt’s navigation of the contested waters of the Cold War. Here too he inherited the achievements of his dynamic predecessor, who transferred Egypt’s affections from Moscow to Washington in one of the greatest turnarounds of the Cold War.

Mubarak’s best days were during the 1973 October War, where his leadership of Egypt’s air force erased its humiliating destruction during the first moments of the June 1967 calamity. Mubarak’s wartime leadership made it possible for Egypt to liberate Egyptian territory from Israel “to the last meter.”

In 1975, when his place at the top was thought secure, Sadat named Mubarak his vice president and presumed successor. In a system such as Egypt’s, the top man (and it is always a man) must be wary of tempting anyone to aspire to his crown. For this reason, Nasser chose Sadat, who had labored as one of the more obscure and unambitious Free Officers. Only after Nasser’s death did Sadat prove his mettle.

Mubarak was easily outshone by Sadat during the latter’s lifetime. Indeed that was the point. And when he succeeded to the presidency in October 1981 in the days of emergency after Sadat’s assassination, no one believed that he would occupy the chair for long. 

Yet the years and then the decades went by without a  serious challenger in sight. Defying all predictions, Mubarak raised his political survival to an art form. He survived a number of assassination attempts, most mounted by Islamists of varying  stripes. The contest between the children of the Free Officers—whose tight grip on the domestic scene was supported by a sprawling intelligence and police bureaucracy—and the Muslim Brotherhood—a contest that had defined Egypt’s political life since the 1940s—continued.

Mubarak took great care to tighten Egypt’s alliance with Washington and its billions in aid. Unlike today, in those days Washington still believed Egypt to be the Arab center of  its strategy for the region. 

During the heyday of good relations with Mubarak, a new U.S. embassy —in the ubiquitous fortress model adopted to protect Washington’s emissaries from a hostile world—attested to Egypt’s central place in American policies, and America’s distance from the Egypt’s ever-beleaguered man and woman in the street. 

The USAID mission was the largest on the planet, but it succeeded only at the margins of an Egyptian economy hobbled by corruption, bad education, and a political and economic culture that had little tolerance for ideas of any sort. 

Mubarak was never able to win U.S. support for Egypt in its own right. The financial assistance offered Egypt was always a function of U.S. support for Israel and the close security and intelligence ties between Cairo and Jerusalem.

Mubarak shepherded Egypt’s way back into the Arab fold without compromising his close relations with Israel. The Arab League, which had expelled Cairo in 1979 after Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel and moved its digs out of Cairo, welcomed his successor and restored Cairo as its headquarters. Yet Egypt, like the Arab League it invented and led, was a diminished factor in Arab politics. Nasser and Sadat were giants, each in their own way. Mubarak was a shopkeeper. He was content to rule, but he never aspired to master the world he inherited. 

Mubarak made good on Sadat’s historic commitment to Israel. He honored the peace agreement that came into effect in April 1982, when Israel removed its last settlements in Sinai. The treaty enshrined the victory of realpolitik and national interest by removing Egypt from the Arab circle of  Israel’s enemies —leaving the less powerful Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians to fend for themselves. Egypt’s decision to pursue its own interests fatally compromised the ability of Palestinians to wrest what remnant remains of Palestine from Israel. 

Israel took little time to test Egypt’s commitment, invading Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Clearly the agreement with Israel would hold, but Mubarak saw no advantage in doing anything other than maintaining a cold peace with the Jewish state. He never agreed to state visit to Israel, visiting only in his personal capacity to attend Rabin’s funeral in 1993. 

As Mubarak began to tire during his last years in power, so too did Egypt. Mubarak’s domestic critics from all corners had some success in chipping away at the police state that preferred to lock down all evidence of dissent and civic and political action.

His advancing age had an outsized effect on all aspects of Egyptian life. Mubarak as a younger man was able to rule Egypt while running in place. As an old man, Egypt was a reflection of its ruler—tired, slow, deferential to family and their cronies, dismissive of the advice or interests of outsiders.

Ariel Sharon understood this better than most. He too was a leader in his last years of life. Mubarak saw no value in preparing the ground for his successor other than anointing his son Gamal as heir, a sin in the eyes of the generals who remained the real power behind the throne. So too, Sharon had little faith in the ability of his successors, whomever they might be, to secure Israel’s power in the region. 

Sharon’s decision to retreat from Gaza was the decision of an old man who knew he had little time left to set the table for his less gifted successors. Had he been a younger man Sharon would never have left Gaza. Had Mubarak been a younger man, Sharon would never have dared to force Egypt to “swallow” Gaza in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal in the later summer of 2005.

Mubarak was hard pressed to contest Israel’s unilateral decision to force Egypt to bear the humanitarian and security burden that Gaza represented. When Hamas won elections in early 2006 and chased the PLO out of Gaza altogether in 2007, the enfeebled regime in Cairo was forced to pick up the pieces of Israel’s retreat.

Israel’s maneuver exposed the weakness of Egypt’s autocracy under Mubarak’s  geriatric leadership. The historic willingness of the Egyptian public to challenge Mubarak and the rule of the generals that he symbolized helped to convince the generals in SCAF to topple him in 2011—not in order to end their ability to rule Egypt, but to energize and revitalize it. A new generation was waiting in the wings—led by general, now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

In death,  the Trumpers had no time to eulogize America’s former ally and partner. Not even a moment to mourn his passing or even to criticize his considerable shortcomings. In Washington’s hard-nosed view, Mubarak, chased from office by his countrymen and women, had become a non person.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.




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