Egypt's Mubarak: a symbol of autocratic misrule or stability?

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was in power for almost three decades, died Tuesday. Forced to resign during Arab Spring protests in 2011, he was also a U.S. ally, repressed Islamic militancy, and defended peace with Israel.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters from behind bars on April 13, 2013 as he attends a hearing in Cairo. Egypt's former President Mubarak, ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, has died at 91.

Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who died on Tuesday, was the autocratic face of stability in the Middle East for nearly 30 years before being forced from power in an Arab Spring uprising. 

Mr. Mubarak was a stalwart U.S. ally, a bulwark against Islamic militancy, and guardian of Egypt's peace with Israel. But to the hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians who rallied for 18 days of unprecedented street protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere in 2011, Mr. Mubarak was a latter-day pharaoh and a symbol of autocratic misrule.

His overthrow, however, plunged the country into years of chaos and uncertainty, and set up a power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood group that he had long outlawed. Barely two years after his ouster, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi led the military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president and rolled back freedoms gained in the 2011 uprising.

State TV said Mr. Mubarak, who was 91, died at a Cairo hospital where he had undergone an unspecified surgery. The report said he had health complications but offered no other details. 

President El-Sissi offered condolences and praised Mr. Mubarak's service during the 1973 war with Israel, when he commanded the air force, but made no mention of Mr. Mubarak's almost three-decade rule as president.

"The Presidency mourns with great sorrow the former President of the Republic, Mr. Mohammed Hosni Mubarak," he said in a statement. It referred to Mr. Mubarak as "one of the leaders and heroes of the glorious October war, as he assumed command of the Air Force during the war that restored dignity and pride to the Arab nation."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "deep sorrow" over Mr. Mubarak's death. "President Mubarak, a personal friend of mine, was a leader who guided his people to peace and security, to peace with Israel," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Mr. Mubarak “spent his life serving his homeland and the issues of righteousness and justice in the world, with the issue of our Palestinian people at the top of them.”

The United Arab Emirates also mourned the former president and extended condolences to Mr. el-Sissi and Mr. Mubarak’s family, the official WAM news agency reported. It said UAE flags would be lowered for one day of mourning.

Born in May 1928, Mr. Mubarak was vice president on Oct. 14, 1981, when his mentor, President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamic extremists while reviewing a military parade. Seated next to Mr. Sadat, Mr. Mubarak escaped with a minor hand injury as gunmen sprayed the reviewing stand with bullets. Eight days later, the brawny former air force commander was sworn in as president, promising continuity and order.

Over the next three decades, as the region was convulsed by one crisis after another, Mr. Mubarak was seen as a steady hand and a reliable U.S. partner against Islamic extremism. He sent troops as part of the U.S.-led coalition in the 1990-1991 Gulf War and contributed to efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Within Egypt he presided over slow but steady economic growth and largely kept the country out of armed conflicts after decades of war with Israel. Unlike his predecessors, both Mr. Sadat and Egypt's first modern president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mr. Mubarak pursued no grand ideology beyond stability and economic development.

Over the years, Mr. Mubarak tinkered with reform but shunned major change, presenting himself as Egypt's sole protection against Islamic militancy and sectarian division. The U.S., particularly under President George W. Bush, pressed for democratic reforms but was wary of alienating a key ally.

The failure to fulfill repeated promises of change steadily deepened public despair. Those seeking a democratic future were dismayed to see Mr. Mubarak making apparent moves to groom his businessman son, Gamal Mubarak, for a dynastic succession.

“At multiple points during Mubarak's reign, he had the opportunity to reform the Egyptian state,” H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted. “He didn't.”

The Jan. 25 uprising “didn't come out of nowhere – it was the result of many years of pent-up anger at how the state was failing the citizenry, save a tiny slice at the top," he added.

Inspired by the first Arab Spring revolt in Tunisia, protesters took to the streets in January 2011. They harnessed the power of social media to muster tumultuous throngs, unleashing popular anger over the graft and brutality that shadowed Mr. Mubarak's rule.

In the end, with millions massed in Tahrir Square and other city centers, and even marching to the doorstep of Mr. Mubarak's palace, the military announced his resignation on Feb. 11, 2011. The generals took power, hoping to preserve what they could of the system he had led.

Though Tunisia's president fell before him, the ouster of Mr. Mubarak was a watershed moment in the history of the region, and gave impetus to uprisings in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

Over the next two years Egypt held a referendum on an amended constitution, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. Turnout was high as enthusiastic Egyptians got their first taste of democracy. But the Muslim Brotherhood emerged victorious again and again, raising fears among their opponents that the country would be transformed into an Islamic state.

The struggle came to a head in the summer of 2013, when the military removed President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure, from power amid mass protests against his divisive rule. The military assumed power and launched a massive crackdown on dissent. Mr. El-Sissi was elected president the following year. Rights groups and activists say his rule has proved far more oppressive than Mr. Mubarak's.

Mr. Mubarak was jailed shortly after his overthrow and later relocated to a military hospital as he went on trial in an array of cases. The televised images of Mr. Mubarak on a stretcher in a defendant's cage were in sharp contrast to the portraits of the leader that had lined major public streets during his long rule.

For the man who was long untouchable – even a word of criticism against him in the media was forbidden for much of his rule – prison was a shock. When he was flown from the court to Torah Prison in Cairo in 2011, he cried in protest and refused to get out of the helicopter.

In June 2012, Mr. Mubarak and his security chief were sentenced to life in prison for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising. Both appealed the verdict and a higher court later cleared them in 2014.

The following year, Mr. Mubarak and his two sons – wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak's one-time heir apparent Gamal – were sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges during a retrial. The sons were released in 2015 for time served, while Mr. Mubarak walked free in 2017. Following his release, he was taken to an apartment in Cairo's Heliopolis district, where he lived until his death.

Mr. Mubarak is survived by his wife, Suzanne, his two sons, and four grandchildren.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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