After 3-decade rule, Mubarak will be remembered for how it ended
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 12:00 AM
Hosni Mubarak was at the start a reluctant leader, thrust into a job that he said he never asked for and that he sometimes said he would like to leave.
But Mubarak ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, longer than any modern leader of the country. And in the end, he will be remembered for his refusal to leave - until he finally bowed Friday to public pressure for him to resign. His reign ended not with a celebration of his accomplishments or a graceful exit, but after hundreds of thousands of his fellow Egyptians crowded into a Cairo square day after day, making clear that they would see his departure as a cause for national celebration.
"President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down as president of Egypt," Omar Suleiman, his handpicked vice president, announced on state television, meeting the demands of protesters who paralyzed Cairo for more than two weeks.
It is a moment that throws open many long-held assumptions about power in the Middle East - from the role of public protest and free speech to that of the United States, long a dominant player in the region but watching awkwardly from the sidelines as Egyptians took control of their country.
If the public uprising caught the United States unawares, it most certainly did Mubarak. A cautious man whose view of the Middle East was framed by conflict with Israel, the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and a long-running, violent battle against Islamist militants, Mubarak valued stability above all else - and assumed the vast majority of Egyptians shared that perspective. Egypt was a nation, he would argue, that depended millenniums ago on central authority to organize the harvest and mobilize the resources to build the pyramids - and that still needed the same sort of unyielding management to avoid sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians or infiltration by terrorists.
But as a globalized and wired world moved past him, Mubarak missed the obvious fact: What people wanted was a voice, something they felt they had been denied by the country's often-violent security force, its insipid state-run news media and a cronyistic culture that rewarded loyalty to the Mubarak regime while leaving many others in a daily scramble for bread.
The Cairo protests will take a place among such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as key moments in the spread of democratic values. In doing so, it will eclipse the resume of a leader who has been a fixture of Middle East politics through the terms of a half-dozen U.S. presidents and more than a little upheaval.
A military man at heart
Trained on Soviet fighter planes and at a Soviet war college in the days when epochal Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser sided with Moscow in the Cold War, but under Mubarak, Egypt would join the U.S.-led force in 1991 that repelled Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Lauded for his command of the air force during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he would be a steady and sober advocate for maintaining Egypt's peace agreement with the Jewish state - something he defended even amid broad popular anger in his country over events such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon or clashes with Palestinians.
It was a "cold peace" to be sure. As the first Arab country to recognize Israel, Egypt was isolated by the treaty for many years, and agreement remained unpopular with the Egyptian people. But Mubarak insisted peace with Israel was Egypt's best "strategic choice," and he helped sustain it through countless peace talks in Cairo or at his preferred retreat, the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The treaty had reclaimed Egypt's Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation, Mubarak would remind his nation in a matter-of-fact style that became highly valued among U.S. and other Western diplomats, and it let the country avoid the broader threats of war that had shaped his own early years.
It also earned Egypt tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military and foreign assistance over Mubarak's term. The money helped rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure and invigorate its armed forces with M1 tanks and F-16 fighters - never the cutting-edge technology provided to Israel, always a sore point, but enough to make Egypt secure in its ability to defend itself.
And at heart, Mubarak was a military man. The son of a low-level bureaucrat in the Nile Delta, he sped through Egypt's three-year military academy in two years and rose quickly through the ranks of the Egyptian air force.
After advanced training in 1964 at the Soviet Union's elite Frunze General Staff Academy, he was given command of several air force bases and the air force academy before becoming chief of staff. He held that post until 1972, when Sadat named him air force commander in chief and deputy war minister.