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For cautious Mubarak, change became overwhelming

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who has reshuffled his government but refused to step down, met some of the new ministers on Saturday, the state news agency said, in a clear rebuff to the hundreds of thousands of people publicly demanding the 82-year-old leader step down.

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But more and more, the hero, blinded perhaps by his own certainty, began to make missteps. Parliamentary elections in November and December were rigged so blatantly that even Mubarak's allies wince and acknowledge that the parliament has to go, if not immediately then soon.

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A nimble authoritarian government would have flexed as grievances over corruption and the closing of opportunity grew. But Mubarak's has been neither nimble nor subtle.

Nor has he devoted attention to making his case to the Egyptian people. "He did not value the importance of politics," said a member of his own party, Abdel Monem Ali Sayed, president of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Careful conservative

Mubarak was in the air force before he was in politics, and spent the better part of seven years on assignments in the Soviet Union. Protesters like Amr Birmawi, a journalist who spent three years in prison on terrorism charges, today say that Egypt's president absorbed a Russian military mentality - attack from the front, and keep attacking.

Considered a hero for his role in the 1973 war against Israel, Mubarak was chosen by Anwar Sadat to be vice president, and rose to the top position in 1981 when Sadat was assassinated.

Unlike Sadat, and especially unlike Gamel Abdel Nasser before him, Mubarak has no outstanding personality traits, Jamal said. "But everyone [in his inner circle] was invested in keeping him in power," she said, and Mubarak reaped the considerable benefits.

He was careful to keep the military on his side, even as he steered Egypt away from Nasser's Arab socialism, which the officer corps felt comfortable with, toward a more capitalist economy.

While there is widespread poverty, in the early 2000s a well-connected and astonishingly wealthy sliver of society emerged.

"He has done a lot of good things," said Mohamed Al Masry, former chairman of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce. Industry, trade and tourism all prospered under Mubarak, he said.

The standard of living has gone up as well as life expectancy, said Sayed, who belongs to Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party. "But he did not match economic progress with political progress, and therefore he did not allow enough real political reform," Sayed said.

Instead, the system has been marked by spasms of brutal repression interspersed with periods of lighter authoritarianism and modest freedoms. Mubarak's police are a deeply feared force here; they beat and torture suspects, and have packed away thousands to long prison terms. Those who have amassed enormous wealth in Egypt, on the other hand, have done so through access to state-sanctioned monopolies.

Mubarak has attempted to portray himself as Washington's indispensable man in the Middle East, willing to deal with the Israelis, to act as a constraint on the Palestinians, to be a bulwark against Islamic extremism. But one result has been that the grievances that have piled up under him among Egyptians have a distinctly anti-American shading.

"You know all these tanks?" said protester Abdelfattah Zeden one day on Tahrir Square. "They're American-made."

At the same time, Mubarak up to now has had little patience for American prodding on democratic reform. "Certainly the public 'name and shame' approach in recent years strengthened his determination not to accommodate our views," wrote an American diplomat in 2009, in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. "He is a tried-and-true realist, innately cautious and conservative, and has little time for idealistic goals."

But if he's a realist, he's stuck in the 20th century. Nearly half of Egypt's population is between ages 15 and 32. They're spending their formative years on Facebook. He spent his at an air base in what was then Soviet Kyrgyzia.

Sockol is a special correspondent.


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