Egypt's 'pharaoh' is dead

Egypt's former long-term president is dead. His ailing political and economic legacy is now in the hands of the country's present-day authoritarian rulers. An obituary from Cairo by Karim El-Gawhary

By Karim El-Gawhary

It was like a blast from the past. The announcement that 91-year-old former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak died on Tuesday morning provoked few reactions in the country on the Nile. For like all the other autocrats who were overthrown during the Arabellion of 2011, whether Tunisiaʹs Ben Ali or Libya's Gaddafi, Mubarak had played no role in the political life of his country since his abdication nine years ago.

Of course, obligatory Mubarak obituaries were shown on Egyptian state television. But his end, the uprising against him on Tahrir Square, which began on 25 January 2011, was deliberately omitted – as if Mubarak's power had come to a magical end. A testimony to how much the new rulers of the country – President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the military – want to erase the Arab Spring from the history books.

Mubarak's unexpected rise and fall

Mubarak came to power in 1981 when his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat was shot dead by militant Islamists at a military parade on 6 October.  Only a few believed that the then rather inconspicuous and not very charismatic air force commander would hold on to power. It just shows how wrong one can be.


When Mubarak took up his presidency in Egypt, Bruno Kreisky was still in the Federal Chancellery in Austria and Helmut Schmidt in Germany. While Schmidt – retired, cigarette-smoking and statesmanlike – was appearing on German talk shows, Mubarak was still ruling with an iron grip, despite six failed attacks on his presidency. He finally abdicated on 11.2.2011, following a popular uprising against him lasting 18 days.

What followed was a series of trials against him. The first images of him, hidden behind his sunglasses on a medical stretcher tilted upright in the defendant's cage in court, were broadcast around the world. Initially, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the death of 800 demonstrators during the uprising against him.

The rest of his trial history is a perfect example of how a dictator, backed by the new rulers, is not called to account. Just six months later, a court ordered a re-trial. Mubarak was released from prison and – shielded from the public – placed in a military hospital, where he was practically under house arrest.

Less than two years later, he was acquitted, not only of the charge that he had been responsible for the deaths of demonstrators, but also of the accusation of embezzling government funds. In March 2017, he also won his appeal and was finally released. With this he disappeared permanently from the public eye.

Loyal ally to the West

Assessing the legacy of overthrown autocrats is not usually a good thing. Mubarak’s rule was something of a mixed bag. Internationally, he was considered a guarantor of stability until the beginning of the popular uprising against him. And he maintained the peace treaty with Israel signed by his predecessor Sadat.

Ever a loyal ally to the West and the USA, he sided with George Bush Sr. against his autocratic colleague Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. This was just one reason few questions were asked about his leadership style on the domestic front. At home, however, he acted like a typical Arab autocrat.

He kept his country politically and economically side-lined for three decades. With the exception of a few cosmetic changes, he introduced nothing in the way of urgently needed economic and political reforms – probably also for fear of reforming himself away. This ultimately cost him his power and the country three decades of development.

When people celebrated his fall in Tahrir Square, they hoped that their future and that of the entire Arab world would be negotiated democratically and peacefully.

 Master of the political tightrope

Some may hark back nostalgically to the Mubarak era. After all, one of the reasons Mubarak was able to hold on to power for so long was that he was a master of the political tightrope, of tightening the screws and then again leaving enough political space for the pressure that had built up to dissipate.

The opposition, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, sat in parliament in small harmless doses. The media could certainly be critical as long as they did not directly criticise the President and his family.

#hosnimubarak the deposed president of #Egypt died a short while ago. He impoverished a great country, ruined its education and healthcare, rendered it of secondary importance in a region it once led, violated the rights of its citizens.. may God judge him justly & mercifully

— Ghada Shahbender (@ghadasha) February 25, 2020

Observing his demise brought about by the Arab Spring, however, Egypt's current rulers have learnt the lesson of not tolerating any political space at all, at the risk of not being able to let off any steam anywhere. Today, the repressive apparatus has reached new heights, making Mubarak's times seem harmless to some Egyptians.

That said, it should not be forgotten that today's rulers in Egypt are still primarily responsible for administering Mubarak's legacy. An utterly dilapidated education system, a health system where one can only hope that the corona virus does not strike in Egypt, and institutions incapable of statehood. In addition, one third of Egyptians today officially lives below the poverty line.

Perhaps a tweet from the then Tahrir activist Ghada Shabender sums it up best. "Mubarak has driven his country into poverty, ruined its education and health systems, and rendered a regional power meaningless. May God judge him justly and mercifully!"

In the end, Mubarak was nothing more than a political yardstick. The whole country agrees that he stood for political stagnation and corruption. But those who were glad to get rid of him nine years ago also agree today that he was less authoritarian than Egypt’s current rulers.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2020