After 3-decade rule, Mubarak will be remembered for how it ended

By Caryle Murphy and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

A year later, Mubarak and his fellow officers were ordered by Sadat to secretly prepare an attack on Israeli forces occupying the Sinai Peninsula - territory Israel had seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

On Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt's air force launched a successful surprise attack, allowing Egyptian infantry to cross the Suez Canal with relatively few casualties.

Impressed with Mubarak's leadership of the air campaign, Sadat appointed him vice president in 1975. With a growing confidence in his understudy, Sadat sent Mubarak on several missions abroad. It was as vice president that Mubarak first dealt with a U.S. president, meeting Jimmy Carter in 1980.

At 53, Mubarak was violently thrust into the presidency. On Oct. 6, 1981, he was seated to Sadat's right, viewing a military parade, when four militant Islamists leapt from a parade jeep and ran into the stand, where one fatally shot Sadat.

Mubarak, who suffered a minor wound on his left hand, announced Sadat's death on television a few hours later. The ruling National Democratic Party quickly nominated Mubarak as its presidential candidate, and he ran unopposed in a national referendum Oct. 13.

The next day, Mubarak was sworn in as Egypt's fourth president since the monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in 1952. Tears running down his cheeks, he promised to follow Sadat's policies, adding, "This is my fate to stand before you in his absence. . . . The greatest tribute we can pay him is to follow his course."

For most Egyptians, their new president was a relative unknown, and his low-key style sparked many jokes about his competence to lead. Coming after two charismatic Egyptian leaders who helped reshape the modern Middle East, Mubarak was seen by many as colorless, known for a dependable, disciplined and common-sense demeanor. But in a region of many unwanted fireworks, his predictability was a soothing balm - as was the colloquial Egyptian slang that peppered his speech and reminded people of his modest beginnings.

"I didn't ask to be president," he told an interviewer in 1982. "I just accepted because it is in the interest of the country - not for the fame of being president." If it was an earnest sentiment at the time, he gradually came to view himself as indispensable to the country's survival - a circumstance he perhaps encouraged by never following Sadat's example and appointing a vice president, or making clear a transition plan.

In 1999, he spoke of how he had been "hesitant to continue" in the job but felt that if he left office "thieves would find a good opportunity to make destruction." The same conceit was apparent a decade later when he tried to cling to power despite huge public protests. Mubarak was "reelected" four times over his tenure, though in each case the requisite referendum was pro forma: In only one, in 2005, did his ruling party allow an opponent to run, and the man was jailed on election fraud charges.

Many Egyptians, even those who acknowledged the stability he brought to the country, complained that it was only one side of a coin. The other was a long period of political stagnation and repression that left Egypt bereft of durable civic institutions and governed by a combination of the military, the security police and insiders of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

"Too much stability," noted the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer, "is the mummification of Egypt."

A mixed legacy

Apparent efforts to groom his son Gamal as a successor ultimately stoked popular anger and suspicion that the spoils of government and economic growth would be steered to a favored clique for another generation or more. The protests, significantly, ended not just with the president's departure but with the investigation of several insiders - including one of the younger Mubarak's allies - for corruption.

Mubarak's legacy was mixed on other fronts as well. He shed much of the socialist orientation imposed by Nasser, continuing Sadat's "open door" policy of encouraging foreign investment and dismantling state controls. Fearful of sparking internal unrest, he maintained state subsidies for basic necessities such as bread and for money-losing public-sector companies that employed thousands.

Today, Egypt's economy is much improved, with a larger space for private initiative. The country's financial markets have been modernized. Electricity, water, sewage and roads were expanded, and satellite cities were built outside Cairo.

Nevertheless, the country still struggles with high unemployment, rampant corruption, residual state controls and growing demands for basic services from an ever-burgeoning population now estimated at 80 million.

On taking office, Mubarak freed many Sadat critics who had been jailed by the slain president shortly before his death. Among them were prominent, secular Egyptians far from the rising domestic threat that Sadat's murder had made crystal clear: Islamist militancy.

This threat expanded during Mubarak's tenure, peaking in the early 1990s with a violent campaign by two extremist groups. The rebels set off bombs and machine-gunned to death hundreds of tourists, police officers, security forces and Christian Egyptians known as Copts. In the worst incident, they massacred 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997.

They also murdered Egypt's parliamentary speaker and made at least three other assassination attempts against senior officials. In June 1995, Mubarak had his closest call when Islamist extremists fired on his limousine in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa.

Harsh tactics decried

The embattled president met the terrorists head-on with torture, military court trials, capital punishment and mass arrests. Estimates of political detainees ranged from a few thousand to 15,000. Decried by human rights groups, these harsh tactics eventually defeated the radicals, who also were rejected by ordinary Egyptians repulsed by their violence.

More controversial among Egyptians was Mubarak's treatment of moderate Islamist activists, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood does not advocate violence, Mubarak made little or no distinction between them and violent extremists. He kept the group off-balance with frequent arrests, trials on mostly bogus charges and restrictions on their ability to contest elections.

Even as Egyptian society grew more overtly Islamic under his rule, Mubarak cited the Islamist terrorists and Brotherhood to justify keeping Egypt under a state of emergency throughout his presidency, a measure that permitted police wide powers of arrest and impeded citizens from organizing politically.

Before he finally left office, Mubarak offered a series of grudging concessions. In late January, he appointed Suleiman as vice president, the first time he had agreed to appoint a successor. In a televised address Thursday, he ceded some of his authority to Suleiman and announced that he would take steps toward lifting the emergency law, when the security situation permitted.

But Mubarak made no true farewell address of his own, and the circumstances of his departure raised questions about whether he had stepped down voluntarily or been forced out by his advisers. In his speech Thursday, still insisting that he would remain in office, he portrayed himself as a father speaking to the sons and daughters of Egypt.

"This will be the land of my living and my death," he said in that final address as president. "It will remain a dear land to me. I will not leave it nor depart it until I am buried in the ground."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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