Hosni Mubarak was born in Egypt at a time when the past really was a different country. In the 1920s and ’30s, Cairo and Alexandria were centres of the world. Egyptian author Tarek Osman said the cities “dazzled foreigners, seduced visitors, educated the region’s elite, bred art and culture, hosted thousands of immigrants from Greece, Italy and Armenia as well as tens of thousands of Jews, and shaped a highly liberal, open society taking its inspiration from Paris and Rome.”
Today, as the Egyptian president’s reign lurches to its inevitable conclusion amid an unprecedented public uprising, all this is gone.
“The country’s political system has descended to frightening levels of coercion, oppression and cruelty,” writes Osman in Egypt on the Brink, published last year. Egyptians are poor; almost one in three is illiterate; and even those with education struggle to find meaningful work. There “is not only a sense of confusion, resentment and rejection among Egyptians—especially the younger ones, but increasingly an overarching feeling of irreparable damage, a national defeat.”
Egypt’s standing in the world had already fallen when Mubarak began his rule. But as president for the last three decades, he must wear the blame for much of Egypt’s current state of affairs. And yet the country has suffered and declined for no discernible goals or strategy. Arab nationalism, peace with Israel, and aspiring to regional leadership were policies most strongly driven by his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has offered little but his continued and indefinite leadership.
It was Sadat who appointed Mubarak as his vice-president in 1975. Mubarak had earned some notoriety a couple of years earlier when, as commander-in-chief of the air force, he planned and directed an air campaign that contributed to what was arguably the Arab world’s most successful military strike against Israel, then occupying the Sinai Peninsula. But he never courted publicity. His stolid reserve contrasted sharply with Sadat’s exuberant flash, and according to the Princeton historian Robert Tignor, many in Egypt suspected Mubarak had been selected for vice-president because his mediocrity was not seen as threatening. He was seen as a “well-meaning but not particularly adept bureaucrat,” writes Tignor. But Sadat seemed to trust him.
“I want you to share my responsibilities,” the president told Mubarak when he appointed the air force commander to be his right-hand man in politics. “Nobody knows what the future holds for me, and the secrets of the state should not be in the hands of one man only.”
On Oct. 6, 1981, the two were standing together with other dignitaries on a parade reviewing stand when army officers who opposed Sadat’s peace deal with Israel, and who had obtained the blessing of an Islamist sheik, attacked the party with rifles and grenades. Sadat and 11 others died. Mubarak was wounded. Eight days later, the supposedly well-meaning and mediocre Mubarak was sworn in as president.
“His rise to power was, I think, unexpected for him,” says Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and knows Mubarak well. “He was a military person, rose to the top of the air force, but was then kind of shot out of a cannon into the vice-presidency. And then his rise to ultimate power came as the result of an assassination, not a plan on his part. So he’s very much shaped by this background that he’s been called to service, as opposed to the ambition of one who seizes power.”
Nicknames for him have abounded, such as Bulldozer Man. “He’s physically imposing, he’s built stocky, he was an athlete, he played squash for many years, until his knees went bad,” Kurtzer says. Teflon Man—”because he had a mind to which nothing would stick,” according to one explanation. But, Kurtzer notes, there is more to Mubarak. “He is very intimate in conversations, in other words, once he trusts you, he will pepper his conversations with stories, some of them quite interesting, about his relations with other people. But they’re all designed to show a point: he’s not a gossiper. But it becomes a quite personable conversation–you listen carefully, you understand what he’s trying to get at.”
According to Tignor, Mubarak’s reputation as a political dullard persisted longer than it should have. A popular joke likened his features and actions to those of a smiling cow on a popular brand of packaged cheese. But Mubarak was much more adept than his image suggested. He outwitted his rivals, stifling the opposition and even outlawing parts of it, and kept himself in power longer than virtually any other head of state ruling today.
But to what end? Mubarak never had a compelling vision for the country he has led, other than stability and preventing the onslaught of something worse—namely radical Islam—should he leave. “The truly awful thing about the Mubarak regime is just how bankrupt it is, as it muddles aimlessly along,” writes the journalist John Bradley in his 2008 book Inside Egypt.
“There is no ideological rationale that it offers, no standards to which the people can be rallied. Pan-Arabism long ago was jettisoned; Islam is the solution proffered by the opposition. While there have been improvements in the economy, their distribution has been so uneven and skewed toward those affiliated with the regime that resentment and resignation have, if anything, increased. The regime’s political party has no real links to the people, and outside the major cities is barely a presence?.?.?.?In the absence of any kind of legitimacy, what keeps it in power is therefore fear.”
But fear disappeared as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to call for an immediate end to Mubarak’s regime. On Tuesday, they won at least a partial victory when the president, in an address to the nation, called on the country’s politicians to begin enacting democratic reforms. “I have never ever been seeking power,” he said—ignoring the lengths to which he had gone to hold on to it. More importantly, with a presidential election due in September, he said he would not run again—although he indicated he would remain as president until then. The question as Maclean’s went to press was, would that be enough to assuage the mounting anger on the streets?
Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928, in Kafr-el Meselha, a rural village in the Nile River delta. His father was a minor justice ministry official and his upbringings were modest, and according to Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador, this has shaped his personality and political outlook. “Look, he’s a very impressive fellow,” says Kurtzer, who now teaches Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University. “There’s nothing about him that’s the brutal dictator of Saddam Hussein’s ilk. He’s very aware of his own background. He comes from a middle-class, or even lower-middle-class family, so he still sees himself attached to the people.”
There is some speculation that Mubarak’s favourable view of the West may have been stoked to some extent by his wife, Suzanne, the daughter of an Egyptian doctor and a nurse from Pontypridd, Wales. (The couple have two middle-aged sons, Alaa and Gamal; until the uprising, the latter was thought to have been groomed as Mubarak’s successor.) “I still have cousins in Britain,” Suzanne Mubarak said in an interview two years ago. “I am comfortable in both cultures, in both worlds. And that helps. And that’s what I would like for the Arab world, for children from a very early age to start appreciating other cultures.” (Suzanne may also have contributed to Mubarak’s authoritarian bent. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, during a visit to the Sinai Peninsula she arbitrarily took over a bus that had been bought with money from the United States Agency for International Development and was meant to carry children to school.)
It was the armed forces, though, and specifically the air force, that likely had the greatest influence on Mubarak. It was through the military that Mubarak was able to raise himself to among the country’s most powerful. He taught at the Air Force Academy for seven years in the 1950s and enjoyed moulding young men from poorer backgrounds such as his own into military officers.
The air force also exposed him to the world outside Egypt. During the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union fought each other for influence in the Middle East, Mubarak made several trips to Russia and studied at the Soviet Military Academy for 14 months in the 1960s. He learned to speak Russian (he also speaks English), but didn’t enjoy his stay. “Whoever wants to be a Communist should go and live there for a while,” he once told the journalist Walter Cronkite.
In 1981, when Mubarak took power, Egypt was in the midst of crisis. Domestic Islamists had murdered Sadat. A peace treaty had been signed with Israel, but its terms were not yet implemented. The country’s economy was weak. “Stability, law and order, became very important for Mubarak. When you listen to him, you have to listen through the prism,” says Kurtzer, adding that because of Mubarak’s military background, assuming an authoritarian role came naturally.
“I think there is a general view within many in the Egyptian military establishment that Egyptians need a strong leader,” he says. “Here they do hark back to history. You needed someone to regulate the flow of the Nile, to ward off invaders, protect essentially a valley people. You can go through the whole history and read this common theme. Without carrying it too far, I do think that those in power, Mubarak and his colleagues, believe that you’ve got to have a strong, determined, firm government—not one that will bend to the whim of whatever is the latest popular view.”
Michael Bell, who was Canada’s ambassador to Egypt from 1994 to 1998, tells a story of meeting Yousef Wali, formerly Egypt’s minister of agriculture and one of Mubarak’s political allies. Wali told him that Egypt had a “pharaonic tradition,” by way of explaining how Mubarak and his National Democratic Party supposedly won such overwhelming electoral victories. “I would not call him a benign autocrat,” says Bell. “But I do think that he—within the framework of what he considers possible—felt perfectly comfortable directing and imposing his views on the country. Because that’s the only type of politics these guys know.”
A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reports Mubarak advising the United States that Iraq needs a strong military officer 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 report reads. It continues: “Mubarak seeks to avoid conflict and spare his people from the violence he predicts would emerge from unleashed personal and civil liberties. In Mubarak’s mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than to risk chaos for society as a whole.”
Such an approach comes with a price. During his time in office, Mubarak has lived through at least six assassination attempts. After one, in Addis Ababa in 1995, he said, “There is a God and no one is going to live longer than he was given to live.”
He has survived, but his political life is running out. This week, the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who faced down water cannons and sometimes bullets showed that the idea that Egyptians crave a firm, pharaonic hand to guide their unruly country is a load of bunk, as is the notion that the suffering of a few individuals is acceptable to preserve stability. They wanted the dictator to go; jobs and an end to corruption; freedom.
Almost 30 years ago, Mubarak gave a speech that might have satisfied or at least calmed those making similar demands. “Our eventual goal is to create an equal society, not a society of privileges and class distinctions,” he said in his first major policy address as president. “Social justice is the first rule for peace and stability.”
No one would believe him were he to repeat those words now, and it’s unlikely Mubarak did when he spoke them. According to Osman, to the extent that Mubarak did loosen control over those who opposed him during his early days in office in the 1980s, this was for strictly pragmatic reasons. “The opening up of electoral opportunities to a number of opposition parties, the relatively free press and the relaxation of some restrictions on the professional syndicates were tenuous measures designed to contain an agitated country but never intended to extend into substantial political reform and a sophisticated structure of checks and balances. The various players who were increasingly empowered?.?.?.?were not supposed to evolve into viable opposition or real agents of change; they were pawns in a game controlled by the regime.”
This was the crafty side of Mubarak—the reality that mocked those who derided him as a laughing cow. His other means of control have been less subtle, and were intensified in the 1990s, when Mubarak confronted a rising Islamist insurgency. Thousands were detained in the name of fighting terrorism.
There has been straightforward brutality. “Torture and other ill treatment remained widespread in police cells, security-police detention centres and prisons, and in most cases were committed with impunity,” reads Amnesty International’s 2010 report on Egypt. Sexual violence is common.
A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable reported that intelligence chief Omar Suleiman (recently appointed vice-president by Mubarak) and Habib al-Adli (the recently sacked interior minister) “keep the domestic beasts at bay.” Mubarak, the report adds, “is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.”
There is corruption. It is, writes Osman, “an institutionalized phenomenon that pervades almost every aspect of the country’s socio-economic life.” Egypt ranks 98th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, tied with Mexico and Burkina Faso.
And then there are the state’s means of imposing dependence on the population. Five million, or 25 per cent, of the employed population works in the public sector. Almost two million people work in the country’s internal security services. This figure, notes Osman, is roughly twice the number of soldiers mobilized in all of Egypt’s wars.
Finally, there has been Mubarak’s insistence that, without him, Egypt may fall to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has its roots in Egypt and is well organized politically and socially there. This last threat is one he has directed primarily at the outside world, and especially his American ally.
“No issue demonstrates Mubarak’s world view more than his reaction to demands that he open Egypt to genuine political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services,” an American diplomat says in a leaked cable. “We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world?.?.?.?In addition to Iraq, he also reminds us that he warned against Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas (Iran) to his doorstep.”
This fear found traction among American policy-makers. Mubarak has been prodded toward democracy, but never really pushed. Egypt, for all its decline, is a central power in the Middle East. And Mubarak has co-operated with the United States on two of the issues Washington holds most dear: fighting Islamist terrorism and keeping peace with Israel. This made Mubarak a friend America was loath to lose. Egypt, under his presidency, has received more U.S. aid than any country but Israel.
AND YET FOR all Mubarak’s force and graft, and for all the American money he has brought to Egypt, he was unable to control the streets. “The barrier of fear has been broken,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Doha Center at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
It began with an attempted self-immolation by a man in front of the Egyptian parliament on Monday, Jan. 17. The 50-year-old restaurant owner, Abdou Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, was apparently trying to copy the death of the young Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor whose suicide by fire set in motion the revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali three days before. Hamadah reportedly shouted that he couldn’t get bread coupons—Egypt has an inefficient flour-subsidy system—for his restaurant before security forces doused the flames and rushed him to hospital in critical condition.
He wasn’t alone. Within days, at least a dozen men tried or succeeded in burning themselves to death. Some were mentally troubled, but others were protesting the problems that bedevil Egypt and much of the region: exploding food prices, grinding poverty, a lack of jobs and government repression. While Egyptian officials downplayed the incidents, students and labour groups focused their efforts on organizing a demonstration for Jan. 25, the national holiday honouring the police force. With a feared reputation for brutality and corruption, the security forces were the perfect symbol for all that is wrong with Egypt.
Frustrations exploded on that Tuesday, as hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets throughout the nation in a “day of rage.” Soon they clashed with the well-armed police forces, who fired tear gas and water cannons. But the crowds were undeterred. “Down with Mubarak” filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
For the next two days, the scenes of chaos and tumult gripped the world. As the government tried to regain the upper hand—disrupting Facebook, Twitter and most cellphone and Internet services being used to spread information about the demonstrations—the casualty count mounted, with around a dozen civilians killed and hundreds more injured or arrested. Yet the more the security forces cracked down, the more determined the protesters grew.
The government’s lines of defence were set again on Friday—no phones, no Internet, rows of riot police blocking every major traffic artery in Cairo’s centre. The city was in lockdown, with Mubarak exerting his strength.
At Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, a gathering point for protesters, Cairo’s deputy police chief stood stiffly in full uniform as a Cairo University professor addressed him in front of a waiting crowd. “Please let the people protest in peace,” the professor said. “Don’t react violently. We are all Egyptians.” “You have the right to protest,” agreed the police chief.
Minutes later, the conversation was forgotten. Police encircled Giza Square, where the unofficial leader of the opposition, Mohamed ElBaradei, had gone to speak. The protesters inside were trapped as police fired tear gas grenades into the area by the dozen amid screams and shouts. A mother outside the enclosure panicked: “My boy, my son is in there!” she said, tears streaming down her face. “Egypt is no good.” A photographer demanded to be let into the square; holding his accreditation, the police responded by beating him to the ground with their batons.
“The difference with today is the police violence,” said one protester. “They are not holding back.” Plainclothes security—some rumoured to be prisoners released on the streets to work for Mubarak—were amidst the protesters. Three of them jumped a man, dragging him as he screamed anti-government slogans to a police building. As the day progressed, the police seemed to have the upper hand. Protest groups were fragmented. Unable to coordinate with each other, the “revolution”—which started as a Facebook event—looked as though it might be short-lived.
But this was the calm before the storm. Thousands of protesters slowly gathered on the main bridge over the Nile to Tahrir Square. They crushed forward, waving the flag of Egypt, singing the national anthem, and crying: “The people demand the fall of this regime!” A standoff ensued, with thousands of riot police using fire engines in an attempt to stop the crowd. “There are many reasons why we are fighting,” said one student protester. “For many people, it is day-to-day survival. For me it is more mental survival, of the right to choose my own leader. If you followed the last elections—they were a joke.”
The riots escalated as night fell. “If you go outside, you will be shot!” shouted a manager at the Shepheard hotel, by the Nile River in central Cairo. “No one can go outside after 6 p.m. This is the will of our President Hosni Mubarak.” Along the boulevard next to the river, people ran, screaming; the air, already stained with tear gas, was filled with loud booms. “They are using live bullets!” screamed one protester. Army tanks rolled in. The military curfew had begun.
But it had little effect in deterring the crowds. In a side street off Tahrir Square, rioters upturned a police truck and set it alight. Saturday morning, the governing National Democratic Party tower was aflame and the security forces—formerly a ubiquitous sight—were nowhere to be seen. Mubarak had withdrawn the police and, for the first time in years, deployed the army—an object of pride and respect in Egypt—to reinstate security. With the military’s loyalties unclear, and with the feared security forces pushed off the streets, the crowds swelled over the next few days to become a full-scale popular uprising that would shake Egypt’s foundations—and reverberate throughout the region.
“WE ARE WATCHING a change of the political map of the Middle East,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “The overwhelming sensation is bringing hope to the Middle East. Because Egypt is not Tunisia. Tunisia is important, and what they did is important, and they started it. But when something happens in the centre—and Egypt is the centre of the Middle East—it will be reflected on the periphery. So all other countries in the Middle East, they will be affected by this. Everyone in the Arab world today is excited, is happy, is optimistic that change is coming, and this uprising is bringing change not only to Egypt but to the entire Middle East.”
What sort of change is coming is harder to predict. Mubarak’s rule is ending. But who or what will take his place? A little over a year ago, in an interview with Maclean’s, the Egyptian blogger and dissident Wael Abbas claimed the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength was generally exaggerated and that liberals and socialists were gaining ground in Egypt. This wasn’t obvious when he said it. But the protests that have rocked Egypt appear to have sidelined the country’s Islamists for the time being.
“The Brotherhood cannot claim credit or ownership of this uprising,” says Sharqieh. Meanwhile, Wael Abbas, who suffered police harassment and arrests for years, is on the streets with like-minded dissidents, tweeting details of the ongoing revolution multiple times a day.
Still, a stable, Western-style democracy is probably not imminent. There is little organized political opposition in Egypt, except for the Muslim Brotherhood. And Egypt doesn’t have a history of democracy on which to draw.
The military’s role will be crucial. They stood with the protesters and said they were on the streets to protect rather than harm them. But as Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the military has benefited from Mubarak’s regime. If it is no longer willing to support Mubarak himself, it may shift its support to a similar strongman.
Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is more optimistic, at least for the long term. “In terms of what comes next, it’s going to be messy,” he says. “Liberal democracy like you have in the United States or Sweden, that’s not in the cards. I suspect it will take some time and what will emerge is a pluralistic system where the Muslim Brotherhood plays a role, but maybe not a fundamental role. It’s not going to be a liberal democracy, but if it’s a pluralistic system, as in Iraq, fine.”
Barkey, who worked at the U.S. State Department from 1998 to 2000, also believes what happens in Egypt will spill over to other countries in the region, weakening neighbouring dictators and autocrats. If the Middle East is a chessboard, he says, Mubarak is the queen, and he’s about to be taken out of the match. Other pieces may be wobbling. Following protests in Jordan, King Abdullah this week sacked his government and appointed a new prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, ordering him to pursue political reforms.
According to Ibrahim Sharqieh, the fall of Mubarak and other U.S. allies may cause problems for the United States, unless Washington moves quickly to ally itself with democratic movements that emerge to replace them. It’s a conundrum with which American governments have struggled for years: whether to back friendly dictators in the region, or to champion democracy even when they don’t like the results.
“The United States, for some reason, chooses to believe that having power concentrated in one person makes it easier to implement U.S. policy in the Middle East,” says Sharqieh. “That’s the wrong approach. Democracy will bring stability. I think they go hand in hand. But autocracy and dictatorship will provide instability and security concerns for the people and for the Middle East.”
The dilemma is still there, but how the current American administration chooses to resolve it in Egypt is now more or less irrelevant. Regime change is upending the Middle East. And the United States has nothing to do with it.
REVOLUTIONS are messy business. The uprising against Mubarak left as many as 300 people dead and an estimated 3,000 injured, according to human rights monitors. Heading into last weekend, and with the police off the streets, local vigilantes set up their own version of neighbourhood watch after witnessing looters take advantage of the disappearance of police from residential streets. Human Rights Watch later said it had confirmed cases of undercover police taking part in violence and looting. According to the private intelligence agency Stratfor, “the idea behind the violent campaign was to portray the protesters as a public menace and elicit a heavy-handed army crackdown.”
The military didn’t take the bait, but the chaos continued, extending to the financial sector. The stock exchange and central bank didn’t open on Sunday “to prevent the spread of riots.” Shortages grew. A statement from President Barack Obama talked of supporting “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” even as foreign nations started evacuating their citizens.
Mohamad Al-Ississ, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo, arrived home to find his neighbours in the gated community of Al Rehab, located about 30 km outside Cairo, organizing vigilante groups. “It was striking how calm they were about it,” he says. By Friday night, he adds, one couldn’t drive more than 1.2 km in the neighborhood without encountering an improvised citizen checkpoint.
The sudden withdrawal of the police on Friday evening also sparked panicked assaults on grocery stores, gas stations, and ATM machines. By Saturday morning it had become almost impossible to get food, fuel, or money, says Ississ, who queued up for hours to help a neighbour get dried milk and a bag of rice.
By Saturday evening, he and his wife Nora Jarrah, a dual American and Syrian citizen, had decided to fly to Jordan, where his family lives–but fleeing was no easy feat. They first waited two hours in the crowd outside Cairo’s airport only to see their four-year-old son fall to the ground and almost be crushed by the mass of people when they were about one metre from the entrance. “It’s not that people were mean,” says Ississ, talking about the near-stampede. “It was just the chaos.” He pleaded with bystanders to pass the child, along with his two-year-old sister, over their heads and out of the crowd, while he and his wife worked their way out as well.
On Sunday evening, breaking the 4 p.m. curfew, the family was back at the airport, and this time they made it onto a plane to Amman. “There was no good reason for the police to be pulled out of the city,” Ississ says, “no reason for this fear and anxiety–other than a decision by a dictator.”
But the anxiety seemed to wane. Tuesday, the start of the second week of demonstrations, was marked with an unprecedented peaceful protest. As many as a million people joined the call to depose Mubarak. They poured into Tahrir Square, ignoring another military curfew. “Today is completely different to past days,” said one protester named Mohammed. “Before, my parents did not want me to take part. Today, everyone in my family is going—it is no longer just the middle-class youth who are taking part.”
Women in full Islamic dress marched, chanting. A mother held the hand of seven-year-old Ahmed, who said: “I am not afraid. I will stay here until the president leaves.” Elderly men watched youths dance and sing anti-government songs.
The anger was raw. “[Mubarak] destroyed the middle classes. My brother is a qualified orthopaedic doctor, but he only earns $100 per month in this job,” said a man who identified himself as Hashem. “I have studied English for 17 years, I have a degree and now I work in a supermarket,” said Mohammed, the words “get out” written on his forehead. “I have four children, but we all live in one room. I can barely afford to eat,” said a taxi driver in the crowd.
“Leave, leave, leave, down with Mubarak,” the crowds chanted in unison, drowning out the roar of the military helicopter that circled above. “Get out, Mubarak!” One woman, her voice hoarse with passion, shouted: “We need democracy, civil rights, human rights. We want to live as free people in a free country, with an elected leader.”
The atmosphere was one of celebratory determination. “We will stay here, and if Mubarak is still here tomorrow, we will stay tomorrow,” said Ahmed Sameh, who had not moved from the square in over five days. “The Tunisians marched for 30 days to make Ben Ali leave—we will march for 30 years if we have to.”
That was before Mubarak’s address to the nation. It is a resolve that is likely to be tested in the days ahead.
With Erica Alini, Patricia Treble, and Ruth Sherlock