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Mubarak's legacy – and his downfall: A stale stability

Unlike his iconic predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who left clear imprints on Egypt, Hosni Mubarak will probably be remembered more for unfulfilled expectations.

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Mubarak was born to a rural family in the Nile Delta and came up through the military, eventually becoming head of the Air Force. He was appointed vice president in 1975, and took power in 1981 when Sadat was assassinated by Islamist militants who were angered by the Camp David peace accords with Israel.

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He kept a tight hold on power for the next three decade thanks to the infamous emergency law implemented after Sadat's murder. He and Omar Suleiman, the retired general and spy chief, ruthlessly and successfully pursued Islamist militants and squeezed out independent political organizations. During his reign, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) came to dominate parliament thanks to rigged elections and repressive political laws.

Though he and his aides promised a political opening for more than a decade, his actions were something else again. The last parliamentary election on his watch, in November 2010, was widely viewed as the most rigged of his time in office, returning more than 95 percent of the seats to the NDP.

Mubarak's singular achievement was a stability – some would say stagnation – that kept Egypt out of war, at peace with Israel, and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in American largesse. The tanks on the streets of Cairo today and the best planes in the Air Force were largely underwritten by the American taxpayer.

He tended close US ties and the Camp David accords, maintaining a cold peace with Israel that was simultaneously deeply unpopular with the Egyptian public and appreciated. To the average Egyptian, Israel is a symbol of oppression, but they also appreciated that their sons were no longer being asked to die in wars with their small and powerful neighbor.

Still, Mubarak oversaw Egypt's steady decline in regional relevance from the glory years of Nasser. While he led the country back into the Arab League in 1989 (Egypt's membership was suspended after Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1979), it rejoined as one member among many, never to regain its past influence. Rising regional powers less reliant on the West, more aligned with popular opinion, and having the ambition to pursue bold positions, emerged.

Economic growth but at a cost

To be sure, Mubarak presided over economic reforms that strengthened Egypt’s economy and there have been real benefits for Egyptian citizens. Many economic and social indicators improved. As the population has nearly doubled since 1981 to 83 million, per capita gross domestic product has increased, life expectancy is up, infant mortality has been cut in half, and the literacy rate is now 70 percent.

But though Egypt’s economy grew, his effort to privatize state-controlled industry sparked an outcry among workers who were accustomed to a dependable living from the state and now complain of unpaid wages and job cuts.

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