After nearly 30 years at the helm of the economic and cultural center of the Arab world, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak relinquished his post in the face of an unprecedented and unrelenting pro-democracy movement.
He was the longest-ruling Egyptian leader since Mohamed Ali Pasha, the 19th-century Ottoman viceroy who is considered the founder of modern Egypt.
Unlike his iconic predecessors and fellow generals Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who left clear imprints on the nation and died in office, Mubarak will probably be remembered more for unfulfilled expectations and wasted opportunity.
"With Nasser and Sadat, people remember what they did do. Concerning Mubarak, I think the people will remember ... what he might have done, but did not," said analyst Amr al-Shobaki of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, speaking before Mubarak's fall.
After the thundering Arab nationalist rhetoric of Nasser, and the historic peace made with Israel by Sadat, Mubarak turned Egypt politically inward. He oversaw a process of liberal economic reform that benefited a small business and military elite at the cost of widening social gaps, even as the industrial base of Egypt eroded under his watch from its glory years in the 1950s.
Rampant inflation in recent years made it harder for millions to feed their families, and the promises by Mubarak and his investment banker son, Gamal, that economic liberalization would eventually lift Egyptians out of poverty were increasingly derided as a cruel joke by a citizenry watching their country's international standing and their own economic prospects decline.
Though many factors contributed to the social revolution that swept Mubarak away – the spread of communications technologies like the Internet, a youth bulge that had never known any ruler but him, the stunning evidence from Tunisia that a popular uprising could succeed – his economic failures were a crucial component.
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.
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.
As the 18-day uprising that began on Jan. 25 spread, wildcat strikes broke out at military-owned companies, at state-owned factories in the delta, and along the economically crucial Suez Canal. Egyptian laborers have been in a state of simmering upheaval since 2006, and probably played as much of a role in his downfall as the democracy protesters who massed in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
While some have done well for themselves under Mubarak’s regime, income inequality has soared since he took power, as has inflation. Twenty percent of the population lives in poverty, and another 20 percent barely above it. Unemployment is high.
“According to most indicators people’s living have gotten better, but not nearly as much as people would like,” says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “Even if the economic indicators are up, people’s daily lives are much more of a struggle.”
In the West, Mubarak will be remembered as a steady, dependable US ally. He successfully dealt with a wave of terrorism in the 1990s, reliably repressed the peaceful Muslim Brotherhood at home, and assisted Western efforts to pursue Al Qaeda. He and Suleiman participated in the US extraordinary rendition program after Sept. 11, in which terrorist suspects were transferred to countries like Egypt with a reputation for harsher interrogation methods – human rights activists say torture – than America does.
But those positions did not win him favor domestically. Mubarak was not a particularly popular leader, and built an impressive police, security, and intelligence empire that controlled the population through fear and a constant state of emergency that gave him sweeping powers.
Samer Shehata, professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says Mubarak differed from his predecessors in that he did not have fervent supporters. "Nasser and Sadat got people emotional. Even among his [Mubarak's] supporters, he doesn't attract very much emotion," he says. "He [was not] a loved leader."
Abroad, Nasser was leader of the Pan-Arab movement, and Sadat shared a Nobel prize for making peace with Israel. But Mubarak never made any significant moves on the international stage. Though Egypt was once a key regional mediator, in recent years Mubarak was unable to negotiate even Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
It is just one more thing Mubarak could have accomplished, but didn't, say analysts. "He could have done a lot of things," says Dr. Shobaki. "He stayed in power for 30 years in a stable period.... Egypt was not occupied, Egypt did not go to war with Israel. And he did nothing."