Mr. Mubarak was a gray and charmless former air force general when he was catapulted into Egypt’s presidency by the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. In the 29 years of rule that followed, his abiding characteristic was a deep reluctance to change much about himself or his country. For decades, Egypt stagnated, locked into the quasi-socialist economy and Arab nationalist ideology concocted by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the population boomed, and a rapidly integrating global economy left Egypt behind.
Mr. Mubarak made a belated and halting effort at economic reform beginning in the 1990s, and a modest boom followed. But progress was hamstrung by cronyism and corruption. As a result, the liberal policies Egypt desperately needs in order to attract foreign investment and follow the path of developing countries such as China, India and Indonesia were discredited with much of the population.
In politics, Mr. Mubarak’s appetite for change was even more attenuated. In the last years of his rule, he tolerated a freer press and refrained from censoring the Internet — which allowed tens of thousands of young people to organize against him. But elections were invariably rigged and peaceful democratic opponents persecuted, tortured and imprisoned.
Mr. Mubarak reserved his toughest measures not for the banned Muslim Brotherhood — which was allowed to place scores of its members in parliament — but for secular pro-Western democrats. This allowed him to argue to his benefactors in the White House and Congress, often successfully, that they had to choose between his dictatorship and an Islamist takeover.
Like dictators elsewhere, Mr. Mubarak groomed his son to succeed him. The prospect of the callow and unpopular Gamal Mubarak as leader helped drive Egyptians into the streets behind liberal revolutionaries in January 2011 — and critically weakened Mr. Mubarak’s support among the generals who ultimately removed him. But the subsequent transition to democracy foundered on the clash between the two intolerant political forces Mr. Mubarak had fostered, the military and the Islamists. Since a July 2013 coup by then-Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi against an elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Egypt has sunk into a still more repressive regime, marked by thousands of extrajudicial killings and tens of thousands of political prisoners.
In exchange for tolerating Mr. Mubarak’s autocracy and supplying him with $1.5 billion in annual aid, the United States secured a cold peace between Egypt and Israel and access to the Suez Canal. But Mr. Mubarak remained a difficult ally. In 2005, President George W. Bush concluded that the U.S. policy of backing Mr. Mubarak and other Arab dictators had been a mistake and pushed for Egypt to “lead the way” in democratizing the Arab world. But when Mr. Mubarak resisted, Mr. Bush’s initiative faded.
When the revolution erupted, the Obama administration helped to push Mr. Mubarak from power. But after Mr. Sissi’s coup, U.S. policy returned to a blind embrace of Egyptian autocracy. President Trump has called Mr. Sissi “my favorite dictator.”
Neither Mr. Trump nor Egypt’s new strongman has learned the lessons of Mr. Mubarak’s failure. The Arab world’s most populous nation continues to lag behind other developing countries. Egyptians who advocate liberal reforms or even free speech are still relentlessly persecuted. Islamists remain the strongest opposition force. Sadly, the repressive, stagnant regime that Mr. Mubarak created has become Egypt’s standard.