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Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: A survivor comes undone

FILE - In this Oct. 6 1981 file phoEgyptian President Anwar Sadright Vice President Hosni Mubarak are seen reviewing stduring

FILE - In this Oct. 6, 1981 file photo, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, right, and Vice President Hosni Mubarak are seen on the reviewing stand during a military parade just before soldiers opened fire from a truck during the parade at the reviewing stand, killing Sadat and injuring Mubarak. Egypt's vice president says Mubarak resigned on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011 as president and handed control to the military. (AP Photo/Bill Foley, File)

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CAIRO — He survived assassination attempts and wave after wave of Mideast crises, a solid ally of the West whose stable image reassured many Egyptians. Hosni Mubarak ended his presidency Friday as a symbol of what was wrong with Egypt: the repression, the corruption, the lost hopes of a swelling, impoverished class.

Mubarak, in power for nearly three decades, was such a fixture that his exit from power was hard to conceive for most Egyptians just a short time ago. Year after year, as the president aged and ailed, people watched his scripted appearances on television — the suit and tie, the wagging finger, the “father of the nation” aura.

After protests and upheaval swept Egypt, Mubarak sought to portray himself as the only obstacle to chaos, as he had done successfully so many times in the past. Yet attacks by his supporters, who roamed downtown Cairo with impunity, suggested that violence lay at the core of his system.

As he clung to power, the status quo he personified became increasingly loathed. And as it turns out, beneath the stern facade of authority, the 82-year-old was a figure in steep decline, unable to check boiling currents of popular fury, or harness the history unfolding in his nation of 80 million — the largest in the Arab world.

A former pilot and air force general with a combative, stubborn streak, he took tentative steps toward democratic reform early in his presidency but pulled back toward the dictatorial style that eventually propelled the protests that began on Jan. 25.

Assessments described Mubarak as a man deeply suspicious of reform. A 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, released by the secret-sharing WikiLeaks website, called him “a tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative,” and with “little time for idealistic goals.”

It noted that Mubarak disapproved of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein of Iraq, which he believed was in need of a “’tough, strong military officer who is fair’” as leader.

“This telling observation, we believe, describes Mubarak’s own view of himself as someone who is tough but fair, who ensures the basic needs of his people,” the cable said. “In Mubarak’s mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole.”

Mubarak was long credited by his Western allies with keeping the peace with Israel and keeping Egypt free of the grip of Islamic extremism. In a searing experience that defined his outlook, he was sitting on a military viewing stand next to his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, when Islamic militants assassinated Sadat in 1981. A week later, with Egypt in trauma, Mubarak was president.

He lacked the charisma of his two predecessors, the peacemaker Sadat and the Arab nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and served in their shadows. He struggled with the problems that have bedeviled the Arab world: choking corruption, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and fighting militancy. Economic reforms spurred growth, but the fruits trickled only to a few.

He carved out a niche as a key negotiator on the Palestinian crisis, bolstered by billions in U.S. aid. He engineered Egypt’s return to the Arab fold after nearly a decade out in the cold over its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Early on, Mubarak put down an insurgency by Muslim extremists, whose ranks had produced Sadat’s assassins and some of the future al-Qaida leaders. In the 1990s, he fought hard against another resurgence of Muslim militants whose attacks included the slaughter of dozens of foreign tourists at the temple city of Luxor.

Eli Shaked, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2003-2005, described Mubarak as “a strong presence, not charismatic but with a heavy body like a fighter bomber, and very levelheaded.”

Shaked said Mubarak met visiting Israeli officials with at least three top advisers by his side, often consulting with them and demonstrating a detailed knowledge of Israeli politics. The Israeli said Mubarak liked “political jokes and witticisms,” but was short on creativity: “The man is completely status quo.”

Mohammed Hosni Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928, in the village of Kafr el-Moseilha in the Nile delta province of Menoufia. His family, like Sadat’s and Nasser’s, was lower middle class.

After joining the air force in 1950, Mubarak moved up the ranks as a bomber pilot and instructor and rose to leadership positions. He earned nationwide fame as commander of the air force during the 1973 Middle East war, and was vice president when Sadat was assassinated — an attack Mubarak escaped with only a minor hand injury.

In his early days, Mubarak made popular moves that held up promise of a more open society, including freeing 1,500 politicians, journalists and clerics jailed during Sadat’s last months in office.

But hopes for broader reform dimmed. Mubarak was re-elected in staged, one-man referendums in which he routinely won more than 90 percent approval. He became more aloof, carefully choreographing his public appearances, and his authoritarian governance, buttressed by harsh emergency laws, fueled resentment.

Age took its toll on the president, who was once an avid squash player with a consistent style that matched his personality. He became hard of hearing, and was so devastated by the death of a 12-year-old grandson in 2009 that he canceled a trip to the United States. Last year, he had gallbladder surgery in Germany.

Egypt’s influence in the Middle East, meanwhile, waned as the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and their patron, Iran, gained momentum and followers. The growing profile of Turkey, a democracy led by an Islam-inspired government, also chipped away at Egypt’s heavyweight stature in the region.

In 2005, Mubarak held the country’s first contested presidential election, an event marred by charges of voter fraud and intimidation. He retrenched when opponents made gains in ensuing parliamentary elections, launching a harsh campaign of arrests against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest and best organized opposition group.

Before the protests began, Mubarak had been silent on whether he intended to seek re-election in September. But the quick rise of his son, Gamal, through the ruling party caused immense anxiety.

The fear that Mubarak was grooming Gamal, a wealthy businessman, to succeed him left many Egyptians feeling trapped in the past, deprived of change and renewal. Then, the uprising in Tunisia delivered an electrifying message: an old order can be ousted.

Mubarak initially responded to protests by saying he would not seek another term, and his government said Gamal Mubarak would not run, either. But the president rejected demands that he step down immediately, telling ABC News that he’d like to leave but feared the country would sink deeper into chaos without him.

It was a persuasive argument for 29 years, but in 2011 it was overwhelmed by the cries of huge crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: “Leave! Leave!”

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