Egyptian pharaohs, sultans, kings, and presidents have always ruled supreme. Modern Egypt has been shaped in the second half of the nineteenth century, not only by the vision but also the proclivities, of Khedive Ismail. King Farouk’s liberalism, his infatuation with Europe, and even his licentiousness influenced society’s tolerance and open-mindedness in the 1940s. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s morality and integrity inspired the grandeur and stateliness of the 1950s and 1960s. Anwar Sadat’s piety and unpredictability triggered the waves of religiosity and the tumultuous changes in the 1970s. Hosni Mubarak’s imprint, however, is missing.
Part of the problem was that Mubarak never connected with his people in a personal way. Even, after being ruled by Mubarak for thirty years, Egyptians know very little about him as an individual. His persona always remained associated with state ceremonies and public events. The thoughts, feelings, and dispositions behind the façade were a mystery. Egyptians heard that he was a good squash player and enjoyed traditional Egyptian folk music; yet he never played the sport or displayed such cultural interests in public. Despite the millions of words and images published by the Egyptian state media since 1981, Egyptians do not know the man.
Mubarak’s first two terms included a number of achievements. He developed the utilities, telecommunications, educational, and industrial infrastructures. But most of these achievements were swamped by high population growth rates, deficient administration for public services, and rampant corruption at various levels of government. In foreign policy, the president’s admirers emphasized how he avoided dragging the country into either military misadventure or serious political confrontation. His cautious, calculated approach nonetheless failed to resonate with Egyptians’ sense of identity and how they envisioned their country’s role in the region. With the passing of the years, Mubarak’s internal and external policies gradually fell out of step. Increasingly, he offered nothing tangible that could inspire hope. Instead, the crushing socio-economic conditions, widespread corruption, and gap between haves and have-nots fuelled the anger that vast swaths of Egyptians felt towards his regime.
Significant anger targeted Mubarak personally. By his third decade in office, and as the only leader most Egyptians had ever known, he was held responsible for many of their daily sufferings and resentments. The traditional Egyptian jokes at the expense of their presidents turned into waves of demonstrations and, at times, violent manifestations of hatred. From 2005 onward, Egypt witnessed hundreds of small riots, and demonstrators often tore down billboard images of the president.
And little wonder, for Mubarak diluted state institutions. Parliament became a product of successive rigged elections; administrative structures and the public sector remained mired in lethargy and corruption, and with the rise of the private sector, they increasingly lost their relevance. The presidency ceased to be what it had been, albeit at times, under Nasser and Sadat: a vibrant nerve center of governance, full of notable advisors and intellectuals, with links to most of the country’s think tanks, and acting as a laboratory of ideas. Instead, it became a mere administrative shell around the president. The entire system was composed of executive bodies, rather than pillars of a balanced political system.
Increasingly, the regime relied on containment, coercion, and confrontation. Containment involved economic development and investment programs aimed at alleviating some of the pressures of Egyptians’ daily lives, and winning some goodwill among middle-class Egyptians in particular. Coercion became evident in the state’s suppression of any potential challenge, such as the crushing of protest, strict controls on civic organizations, and the endemic use of torture. Confrontation lay in curbing any new political initiatives from within Egyptian society.
As time passed, Mubarak’s disconnect from society grew, and the more entrenched his trust and legitimacy problem became. Economic development, the key lever within the new dynamo of the regime, proved to be a double-edged sword. Newly empowered businessmen (and women) emerged in their various sectors and demanded a bigger say in how their economy (and country) was governed. Demographics also complicated the picture. The demands, ambitions, and restlessness of a young population—75 percent under the age of thirty-five—compelled the regime to increasingly rely on confrontation and coercion rather than containment. But reliance on force gradually became untenable as the availability of satellite channels and Internet platforms provided Egyptians with greater awareness and the means of mobilizing their discontent.
Mubarak, in turn, isolated himself. He relied on the security apparatus, insisting that solutions could be found in economic reform without any true political change. The notion that he could lead the country out of its political oppression, corruption, economic malaise, sectarianism, and widespread fury finally lost all credibility. Perhaps the starkest sign of Mubarak’s detachment was the endless intrigue to install his son, Gamal, as the republic’s next president. The First Family seemed to imagine itself a royal dynasty; and one supremely oblivious to the ever-rising domestic hostility to Mubarak’s rule.
Some observers seek to explain Mubarak’s fumbling during the January 25 revolt by citing his unimaginative and cautious character. But that is only partially true, for in his speeches to the nation it became apparent he represented a past age. No longer could an Egyptian president claim to speak for the masses; unlike eras gone by when state media monopolized both information and opinion, and authority went largely unchallenged.
Mubarak was unable and unwilling to change. The aging autocrat became protected by his senior clique. He clung to the credo of top-down authority that had predominated since Nasser’s heyday. Much like King Farouk during Nasser’s coup d’état in 1952, Mubarak desperately tried to absorb the popular anger being vented against him. He never realized that his regime had actually been crumbling around him for more than a decade.
Mubarak came to the presidency and soothed the nation after the last turbulent years of Sadat’s reign, which ended with Sadat’s assassination—Mubarak sitting at his side—by Islamist militants during a nationally-televised military parade marking the anniversary of the October War. Mubarak’s impressive and honorable military career, his simple approach, and the fact that he was not linked to the power circles and corruption cases that marred Sadat’s final years, positioned him as a safe pair of hands. After the major social, political, and economic transformations that Egypt witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the shock of Sadat’s killing live on TV, the country needed a calm guide.
Mubarak might have, step by step, helmed genuine democratic transition—he had three decades after all. But he did not. His imagination and appreciation of Egyptian history failed him. Instead, he ended up a prisoner.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. The first edition of the book was published by Yale University Press in 2010 and was translated to Arabic, Dutch, French, and Japanese. Osman’s writing has appeared or been cited in the Economist, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Boston Globe among many other publications.