Hosni Mubarak: Passing of an Era, or Lingering Legacy?

What Mubarak’s legacy reveals about changes in different generations’ relationship to state and society.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrives in a court case in Cairo, Egypt December 26, 2018. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

On an afternoon in August 2014, former President Hosni Mubarak, sitting in a caged box in a Cairo court, denied complicity in the killing of over 800 protestors in Egypt’s 2011 uprising. This testimony, aired live on TV, was Mubarak’s last word to the Egyptian people. In the five and half years that have passed leading up to his death on 25 February 2020, Mubarak was silenced by old age and illness.

For many, events and developments have moved beyond his reign, and rendered him a relic of an age that now seems far away. And yet, Mubarak was always there, in the background, not as a person, but as a threshold into a past that Egyptians feel acutely different about.

In his language and tone in those last words in 2014 Mubarak sought neither forgiveness nor compassion. He affirmed his record of serving and protecting Egypt for more than sixty years. And he positioned himself as a caring, strong, and righteous father: rising above the wickedness of those who “smeared” him and dismissing the ungratefulness of those who forgot what he had done for the country.

This notion of ‘fatherhood’ is deeply problematic for a wide section of young Egyptians—and Arabs across the region. Mubarak’s tone in these last words in the 2014 court of top-down authority, a sense of superior knowledge, and the assumption of deep wisdom was extremely unappealing to many. That was because large groups of Egyptians under 35-years-of-age believed his legacy was primarily a litany of failures that they did not contribute to, and yet were living the consequences of. In this view, the 2011 revolution, was at heart, an expression of anger, a rejection of the structures that many in the young generation considered responsible for the difficulties they were forced to endure.

This reveals one of the serious fissures in Egypt and across the Arab world in the past decade. Opposed to young people were others, another wide group, across all social segments, that accepted this asserted ‘fatherhood.’ Having witnessed the economic regression, security threats, and chaotic situations that that had engulfed different parts of the Arab world in the last decade, this group wanted a return to the comfort zone of relying upon a strong state that assumed the responsibility for the economic, social, and security challenges.

These were the majority who wanted to nestle in the warm belief that a powerful, assertive, knowledgeable, and nationalistic leadership will take care of the acute problems surrounding them. This group wanted intellectual shelter after seeing the chaos that ravaged the region believing the instability since 2011 was the work of traitors, foreigners, or deluded—perhaps at best, idealistically naïve—youngsters. They felt that the past was largely agreeable, and so it could guide the future. This conviction is especially important for older Egyptians and Arabs as it overturns the torturous idea that they—the generations from the early 1960s to the late 1990s—have led the region to the brink.

Accepting this Mubarak-style patriarchal authority structure necessitates exoneration. Fathers should be trusted and respected. And so, Mubarak’s 2014 trial became a reflection, not of legal evidence and arguments, but of the emotional needs of the two groups. The Egyptians who wanted a perpetuation of the past, albeit with vigour and momentum and a more modern, fresh and competent management, wanted Mubarak found not guilty, his honor intact. Those who wanted a break with the past, on the other hand, wanted Mubarak to be found guilty. For them, his guilt was a condition for what they really sought: a complete detachment from the political and social structure of the last half century.

In his 2003 film, The Return, Andrey Zviagintsev shows that the death of the father descends one son into despair, a feeling of having lost his sanctuary, and triggers a fear of facing the inevitable process of confronting life on his own. He questions, “Where would I go now; away from home, it is all an unknown.” And yet, at the same time, it makes the other son feel “free,” “finally emerging from the darkened past.” As Zviagintsev put it in a comment on his film, “Part of the dilemma is that how we see our past is a chimera; and that realization is a necessary step to finally move into adulthood.” Like the two sons, one group of Egyptians and Arabs in general, needed the familiarity of the past to guide it into the future. Another wanted to break the confining mould.

Like other controversial fathers, from King Lear to Fyodor Karamazov, Mubarak did not pursue redemption. And yet, in the decade since he was ousted, Mubarak’s legal cases, and even his legacy and fate became minor issues. What he has left behind is the dilemma of how to see a past full of failures, and how these views of the past shape different generations’ relationships to society, authority, and the state.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink and Islamism: A History of Political Islam. He wrote and presented several major BBC documentary series, including “The Making of the Modern Arab World”; “Sands of Time”; and “Islam Divided”. Osman is also the inaugural senior political counsellor for the Arab World at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On Twitter: @TarekmOsman.

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