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Profile: Egypt's Hosni Mubarak

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Hosni Mubarak

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Smiling is not an option.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Why Hosni Mubarak Matters:

Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic president since October 1981, was one of the world’s longest-serving presidents. His iron grip on every level of Egyptian society kept the Arab world’s most populous nation stable, but at a price. It has exacerbated economic inequalities, kept most of Egypt’s 80 million people in poverty, abetted brutality and torture by police and in the nation’s prisons, and stoked resentment and Islamist fervor against the regime. Those are ingredients of revolution. That revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011. Eighteen days later, Mubarak had been toppled by mass demonstrations.

Mubarak’s Early Life and Family:

Hosni Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928 in Kahel-el-Meselha, a village in the Nile River Delta. The son of a ministry of justice bureaucrat, he was one of five children. He graduated from the National Military Academy in 1949, went on to the Air Force Academy as a fighter pilot and flight instructor, then commander of the Air Force Academy by 1967. His wife, Suzanne, is the daughter of an Egyptian doctor and a Welsh nurse. They have two sons, Gamal and Alaa.

Emergency Law:

Mubarak declared emergency rule immediately after Sadat’s assassination. It’s been renewed regularly since. The decree allows Mubarak to seize or censor all publications and other media outlets, including advertising, search and seize mail, tap phone and Internet communication links, require all political meetings to be reported in advance for approval, seize and hold individuals without trial, or convict political dissidents and other individuals in secret trials. Mubarak promised to end emergency rule while campaigning for his sixth presidential term in 2005. Token gestures aside, he did not keep the promise.

Domestic Policy:

Mubarak’s rule has been defined by the tightening and relaxing of controls on opposition movements, especially Islamists, by patronage and corruption and (mostly empty) promises to tackle both, and by Mubarak’s inability, or unwillingness, to diminish the country’s crushing poverty and inequality. Like his predecessors, Mubarak has unleashed bloody crackdowns on Islamists, especially in the 1990s, when thousands died and were imprisoned following strings of terrorist attacks and assassinations, including attempts on Mubarak’s life. Violence ebbed after 2000 and a pledge by Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya to lay down arms.

Mubarak’s Rise to Power:

Mubarak rose rapidly through the ranks of the Air Force Academy. After learning to fly MiG jet fighters in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, he became the air force chief of staff in 1969, then commander in chief of the air force and deputy war minister three years later. Mubarak distinguished himself in the 1973 October War against Israel, becoming air marshal in 1974. In 1975, Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat appointed Mubarak vice presiden—a post Mubarak himself, as president, always refused to fill for fear of emboldening a successor.

The Presidency:

Mubarak was sworn in as president of Egypt on Oct. 14, 1981, following the assassination of Sadat a week earlier by Islamists from the Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya group, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. “It so happened that this is my fate today,” Mubarak said during the swearing in, tears running down his cheeks, “that I should stand here while he is absent. … Fate has had it this way.” The day before, he had won a national referendum with the entirely improbable

Mubarak and The Palestinians:

Like Sadat, Mubarak made few friends among Palestinians. Sadat was an effective negotiator on Egypt’s behalf, but only a half-hearted one on Palestinians’ behalf. Mubarak in comparison has been quarter-hearted at best. He’s proved incapable of influencing the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, stopping Hamas from attacking Israel or Israel from repeatedly attacking, invading and demolishing Gaza or parts of the West Bank. Mubarak has been more effective at contributing to the Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza, his overriding interest being the preservation of peace with Israel, not the settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Sham Democracy:

Following a push by the Bush administration in 2004 and 2005 to bring democracy to the Middle East, Mubarak promised a few reforms and more open elections. When candidates backed by the Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of parliamentary seats in 2005, Mubarak cracked down on the Brotherhood again. When opposition candidate Ayman Nour of the Tomorrow Party (Hizb al-Ghad) won more than 7% of the vote in the 2005 presidential election (to Mubarak’s 89%), Mubarak imprisoned Nour on dubious charges—for three years. Voter turnout in the single digits suggests Egyptians are disgusted and see through the sham elections.

Mubarak and The Arab League:

The Arab League expelled Egypt following Sadat's separate peace with Israel in 1979, and relocated its headquarters to Tunis from Cairo. Quiely, steadily, Mubarak reestablished relations with Arab countries, beginning the Gulf's oil powers, and by 1989 won Egypt's return to the league. Cairo again became its headquarters.

Mubarak’s Style and Legacy: Prelude to Revolution?:

Mubarak never aspired to be a pan-Arab leader, as Gamal Abdel Nasser had. He’s never been the media-savvy showboat Sadat had been. Dull, taciturn, reliably grim-faced, Mubarak’s strength was in his shrewd ability to navigate Egypt through the roils of the world’s most unstable region, keeping it out of wars and minimizing rivalries. Sadat’s two predecessors took on plenty. Nasser lost far more than he won, including two wars with Israel and chances for peace. Sadat won more than he lost, including, psychologically at least, the 1973 war and the 1979 peace treaty. But he was assassinated.

Mubarak survived by aiming lower and achieving less. He'd been a caretaker president, content to let Egypt’s many and fundamental problems be a successor’s headaches. As a result, problems festered, resentments swelled, and talk of revolution was rife in Egyptian streets, where the atmosphere was often compared to the days before the July 1952 revolution that brought an end to King Farouk’s dynasty. It hasn’t helped that Mubarak has been unwilling to appoint a vice president or establish a clear line of succession, though his son Gamal was his heir apparent.

As Hamdi Qandil, an Egyptian journalist and critic of Mubarak’s regime, wrote, “This regime is clinically dead and we merely await its funeral. All paths for peaceful and gradual change are blocked. The only course left is civil disobedience.”

The revolution exploded on Egyptian streets on Jan. 25, 2011, as hundreds of thousands, and on some days, millions of Egyptians took to the streets against Mubarak. Mubarak ordered the army to take up positions in the streets. The army did, but also refused to take sides, or to open fire on its own citizens. Eighteen days later, on February 11, 2011, Mubarak resigned.

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