Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president ousted by a revolution in 2011, has died in Cairo at the age of 91.
Once one of the Middle East’s most powerful leaders, Mubarak allowed no democratic development in the country during his three decade rule and was widely believed to be grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him when protests erupted in January 2011. Eighteen days later, after demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the army removed him.
His ousting as the leader of the most-populous Arab nation was a momentous event that sparked hopes for democratic progress in Egypt and across the Middle East. But after the Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary and presidential elections the military intervened again in 2013 and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former defence minister and current president, led a popularly-backed coup against the newly elected Islamist leader.
Initially put on trial for the killing by police of some 850 people during the early days of the 2011 revolution, Mubarak and his senior officials were eventually acquitted in 2017 of all charges related to the deaths. The former president and his two sons were found guilty in only one case related to the misappropriation of public funds to renovate private residences.
Born in 1928 in a village in the Nile Delta, Mubarak became a military pilot and was later credited with resurrecting the country’s air force after its defeat by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967. As air force commander he launched the country’s first airborne assault against Israel in the 1973 war, helping Egypt to restore national pride when it sent troops across the Suez Canal to regain control of the occupied Sinai peninsula. Anwar Sadat, the president at the time, then made Mubarak his deputy.
Six years later, when Islamic militants assassinated Sadat at a military parade broadcast live on national television, Mubarak was seated next to the president but escaped almost unscathed. As the country reeled from the assault, Mubarak was sworn in as Egypt’s next leader.
Initially Mubarak tried to present a more conciliatory front than his predecessor, who had alienated critics at home and in the region by negotiating a separate peace accord with Israel. He started by courting Sadat’s critics and released hundreds of detainees, from clerics to political commentators.
Mubarak gradually restored Egypt’s relations with its Arab neighbours while managing to preserve relations with Israel. But just like the man he replaced, as the years passed, his authoritarianism increased.
Under Mubarak, Egypt had many of the trappings of a democracy from elections and political parties to privately owned newspapers. At times there was some space for opposition voices. But in reality it was a one-party state, where the transfer of power via the ballot box remained out of the question.
After international pressure, particularly from the US, Mubarak allowed more competitive presidential elections in 2005 and a freer press. But the presence of an official opposition provided only a mirage of multi-party politics and Mubarak continued to wield the authority of an all-powerful pharaoh.
Emergency legislation, in force for all the Mubarak years, gave police sweeping powers of detention and helped to curb dissent and quell any attempts to organise against the regime. Only those loyal to Mubarak and his ruling NDP party were promoted and rewarded with positions of responsibility.
Mubarak often pointed with pride to Egypt’s stability under his rule. Under his stewardship the country maintained its peace with Israel and refused to be dragged into regional military adventures. A main dividend was continued US support, with billions of dollars in American aid pouring in to upgrade crumbling infrastructure.
But critics chafed at economic decline and what some considered a shameful prostration before US and Israeli interests.
It was under the influence of Gamal, his son, that Mubarak agreed in 2004 to open up the economy and boost exports through steps such as a devaluation of the currency. The reforms paid off in the form of accelerated growth but were seen to benefit a class of crony capitalists around Gamal. Perceptions of corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor fostered public resentment. The regime tried to pre-empt social unrest with increased spending on fuel and food subsidies but it drained resources away from services such as health and education. In the final years before his 2011 downfall Mubarak was seen as arrogant, aloof and dismally out of touch with his people.
Under Mr Sisi, there was no attempt to rehabilitate Mubarak’s reputation but after his acquittal in 2017 he was given his freedom and allowed to live in peace. State television announced his death and the president and army hailed him as a hero of the 1973 war. The government ordered three days of official mourning and agreed to a military funeral — a move seen by many as a final nail in the coffin of the 2011 revolution.
While many Egyptians blame his rule for a lack of vision that brought their country to new lows, some are nostalgic for a time of stability and remember the final years of Mubarak’s leadership as a period when there was greater freedom of expression than there is now.
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