There will be no dramatic moment of closure on the era of Muhammad Hosni al-Sayyid Mubarak, the man who ruled and misruled Egypt for 30 years before being overthrown in early 2011. There will be no choppy cellphone video of the dictator’s final helter-skelter moments, no shots of him being dragged out of a hole looking disheveled and confused, suffering unspeakable violations of his manhood before finally bleeding to death as feral young rebels pose with his lifeless corpse, as was the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But for those who need some visual evidence of Mubarak’s expiration in order to put the man behind them, there is a photograph that portrays, more arrestingly than any gallows snapshot could, the autocrat’s end. It was taken on Aug. 3, 2011, when he was first wheeled into a makeshift courtroom at the police academy to hear the litany of charges against him. Dressed in a white prison jumpsuit, lying on a stretcher, his finger firmly lodged in his nose, he was unrecognizable as the man who for almost 30 years sought to project an image of near immortality. Though it’s not a depiction of Mubarak’s death in its physical sense, that image surely represents his death in every other meaningful sense of the word.
The impact of that image, and of the trial that produced it, is impossible to exaggerate. Where it was once a crime to suggest that the ruler was unhealthy—one journalist spent a month in prison in 2008 for doing so—the former president now seemed to be parading his infirmities. Jihan Sadat, the widow of Mubarak’s murdered predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and a well-wisher of the deposed president’s, expressed to a television interviewer her distress at seeing Mubarak look so wretched. She had hoped for defiance, for him to show the world that he was a “fighter,” and she fretted that whoever had advised him to play up his infirmities had not served him well. She was right. Muhammad Subhi, one of Egypt’s leading satirists, compared the pitiful Mubarak with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had stood up to his prosecutors during his own trials almost seven years ago, cutting a defiant figure even as masked executioners slipped the noose around his neck.
But Mubarak had tried defiance once, and it did not work in his favor. In April 2011, amid mounting protests for him to be put on trial for allowing the murder of protesters and for allegedly stealing more than $70 billion from the public treasury, the former president chastised his accusers and declared his intention to seek legal recourse against them. His brazenness backfired, making it impossible for the generals to fend off their former boss’s pursuers any longer. Two days later, he and his two sons were under arrest, setting in motion the final act in the ill-fated tale of Egypt’s fourth president.
Mubarak was born 84 years ago in a dusty village in the Nile delta, the son of a minor government functionary. At the time, Egypt was presided over by an uneasy trinity of an ineffectual monarch, a heavy-handed British colonial administration, and a dissipated Turco-Circassian aristocracy. For someone of Mubarak’s limited means and ignoble lineage, the pathways to social mobility were few, and the military was one of them. Mubarak graduated from the Royal Military Academy in 1949, and immediately signed up to join the country’s young Air Force because, as he later put it, with his characteristic lack of poetry, “to be a pilot was something new.”
And he was good at it. Anwar Sadat first met Mubarak in 1950 while the latter was stationed at an airbase in the Sinai Peninsula. Lore has it that Sadat was so impressed with the young pilot that he recorded his name in a little notebook. Although Mubarak was not invited to join Sadat’s secret faction of “Free Officers,” his career went into overdrive after their successful coup against the monarchy. By his own account, he was the youngest officer in Air Force history to achieve the rank of general. At the age of 44, he was appointed commander of the Air Force by now President Sadat and acquitted himself well during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
In April 1975, Sadat invited Mubarak to his home for dinner. Suzanne Mubarak reportedly thought her husband was going to be named to an ambassadorship. Instead, Sadat appointed him to the vice presidency. Later Mubarak admitted that he had been disinclined to take the job. His sons, he said, were unhappy to learn that the father would no longer be commanding fighter jets.
Sadat, who had angered Islamists due to his peace with Israel, was assassinated during a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981. Mubarak, who was at his side at the time, was suddenly Egypt’s No. 1 man. In the kill-or-be-killed world of Arab politics, Mubarak’s ascent was atypical. Unlike Iraq’s Hussein or Libya’s Gaddafi, Mubarak did not partake in a military coup or otherwise gamble life and limb in order to attain power. Instead, he was simply Egypt’s second-highest ranking government employee whose last promotion came because of a vacancy at the top.
By all accounts, his rule began auspiciously. Sadat’s last years were rife with corruption, as regime cronies had taken advantage of his economic liberalization to feather their nests. Mubarak declared war on such venality. “The burial shroud has no pockets,” he said, and Egyptians saw in him a God-fearing man who knew that you can’t take it with you, that all will eventually be called to account by the creator.
Whereas Sadat had arrested hundreds of political opponents in the month prior to his assassination, Mubarak began to release them. He also presided over seemingly fairer elections and many began to hope that the new president really did represent a break from the past. It helped that he was modest. A former Mubarak adviser recently reminisced to an Egyptian newspaper how humble the new president had been: “On his lips constantly were the words, ‘Advise me ... I don’t know.’?” Back then Mubarak was unself-conscious enough to have pleaded to one of his ministers, “Talk to me on my level, because I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
There was something refreshing about Mubarak’s smaller-than-life persona, especially after the exhausting high-wire acts of his two predecessors. Jokes were told about his oafishness. One that I recall from my childhood: doctors from the United States, France, and Egypt gathered to report on the state of medicine in their countries. The American says that he has successfully transplanted a human heart. “That’s nothing,” the Frenchman scoffs. “We’ve replaced defective heart valves with mechanical ones.” The Egyptian physician responds, “This is trivial. We’ve transplanted a donkey’s brain into a human being!” His Western colleagues are incredulous. “Was the operation successful?” they ask. “Oh yes,” comes the reply, “he’s now president of the republic.”
But Mubarak’s gentle persona didn’t last. By the end of his reign, he brooked neither dissent nor advice. The late Muhammad al-Sayid Said, a leftist activist and writer, attended one of the president’s annual meetings with intellectuals in 2005. Mistaking the photo-op for something more substantive, he delivered an earnest recitation of all that was wrong with Egypt. Mubarak listened impassively. When the meeting adjourned, Said, still hoping to make a difference, tried to hand the president an outline of a plan he had devised to return Egypt to greatness. Mubarak refused to even touch it. “Keep that piece of paper in your pocket,” he told him, dismissively. “I know Egypt better than you do.”
The flavor of Mubarak’s last years can be discerned in a photograph published almost two years ago in the state newspaper, Al-Ahram. In it, a sprightly Mubarak strides along a red carpet, leading a phalanx of dignitaries comprising President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordanian King Abdullah II. But the photo was a fraud, doctored by the paper’s sycophantic editors. In the original, the Egyptian president is in the rear. But in Mubarak’s Egypt, it was decided that the sight of the great man looking like a fifth wheel was not something his people should be allowed to see.
With arrogance came violence. By the mid-1990s, Mubarak was waging a bitter campaign against Islamist militants, and the death toll was in the thousands. There was popular acquiescence in the brutality—after all, the militants had murdered tourists and Christians, they had tried to kill the president twice, had stabbed the country’s leading man of letters, and had slaughtered the speaker of the Parliament. But increasingly, the regime’s brutality seemed to be deployed not just against armed fundamentalists, but against opponents of all stripes. Baltagiyya, or thugs, became fixtures of political life, trotted out by the police to disrupt protests or harass opposition-party supporters during elections. Writers who spoke ill of the president or his family were imprisoned. (Or, in one case, simply beaten and left naked on a desert roadside.)
But if Mubarak was troubled by any of this, he did not let on. As a 2009 State Department memo put it, he counted on his security services “to keep domestic beasts at bay,” and no matter how pitilessly they performed their grim tasks, the former president “was not one to lose sleep over their tactics.” When Alexandria police officers beat a young Egyptian named Khalid Said to death in the summer of 2010, Mubarak was silent. It was not to be forgotten.
If Mubarak’s only sins had been haughtiness and heavy-handed tactics, he might still be in power. Egyptians, after all, have long tolerated pharaohs. Rather, the root of Mubarak’s break with his people was connected to his son Gamal. The younger Mubarak, an international banker educated at the American University in Cairo, first appeared on the scene in the late 1990s, at a time when Western observers were celebrating the rise of the Western-educated sons of Arab despots. The hope—now exposed as a forlorn one—was that these young men, who included such worthies as Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, could infuse their fathers’ stagnant dictatorships with new blood and new ideas.
Egypt was in need of both. As the country’s population exploded, its economy, still hobbled by a massive public sector, could barely keep pace. Foreign investments were deterred by a tangle of business-unfriendly regulations, and unemployment—the fuel of radical Islamism—continued to rise. What was needed, the Washington consensus went, was a dramatic restructuring of state and economy. And the old ruling-party apparatchiks were too hidebound to do it. Gamal, who became chief of the ruling party’s policy shop in 2002, seemed the answer to these prayers.
In 2004 the president appointed a new cabinet of economic reformers, even if many saw them as merely Gamal’s cronies. Privatization picked up steam, the economy began to post impressive growth, and the World Bank named Egypt the world’s “top reformer.” At the same time, though, shantytowns grew, street children proliferated, employees of state-owned enterprises lost their jobs. Instead of progress, what Egyptians saw was a new generation of regime asociates who got rich off their proximity to power. And there was Gamal’s seemingly dynastic ambition. It did not help matters that Mubarak refused to appoint a vice president. With each passing year, it increasingly seemed as if the elder Mubarak was merely keeping the seat warm for his son. And this Egyptians could not tolerate.
If Gamal was the most hated person in Egypt, his mother was a close second. Hosni had met Suzanne Thabet, 13 years his junior, through her brother, who was a student of his during a teaching stint at the Air Force Academy. Though her father was Egyptian, her mother, a nurse, was from Pontypridd, Wales, and during her time as first lady, Suzanne’s “impure” lineage was always a simmering source of suspicion. (I remember a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary candidate telling me that half-British sirens like Suzanne and her predecessor as first lady, the half-English Jihan Sadat, were deliberately placed—by whom, he did not say—in front of up-and-coming military officers in order to steal Egyptian military secrets or later bend their husbands toward Western interests.)
As first lady, Suzanne took on social issues like literacy and women’s rights. But these worthy causes earned her no credit. Her women’s activism in particular was viewed as a kind of Trojan horse for the implantation of Western values. And she, too, was accused of corruption. Shortly after Mubarak’s overthrow, it was claimed that she diverted donations intended for the Library of Alexandria into a private account over which she was alleged to have had sole discretion. Today, the charred hulks of Suzanne’s National Council for Women and Gamal’s National Democratic Party—which stand next to each other along the Nile and were among the first buildings to be set aflame during Egypt’s revolution—serve as testaments to how much Mubarak’s wife and son had come to be despised by their people.
It’s been said that Mubarak may one day get a reassessment, in the way of King Farouk, the overweight, mustachioed monarch who ruled Egypt until he was overthrown by the Free Officers in 1952. In recent years Farouk has been recast from callow, corpulent playboy to a misunderstood nationalist trying to do his best for his country under difficult circumstances. Once seen as a British lackey, he is now believed to have tried to loose Egypt from its imperial shackles. All of the old calumnies against the deposed king—his reputation for carousing, his penchant for petty theft, his expansive taste in pornography—have now been all but forgotten.
Farouk’s rehabilitation was aided by the fact that what came after him was so miserable. The so-called Free Officers failed to achieve any of their goals. For Mubarak to receive similar reconsideration, the liberal democratic project that unseated him will have to fail as well. And to many, it increasingly looks as if it might. Mubarak always warned that after him would come an Islamist deluge, and his predictions may be borne out. Late last year, Islamists captured a parliamentary majority and, at the time of this writing, seem poised to capture the country’s presidency—that is, if the military junta lets them. But if Mubarak was right, he was right in the way a mugger is right when he tells you he will hurt you if you don’t hand over your money. The president liked to portray himself as the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, single-handedly preventing the inevitable flood. But it was he who created the pressure by suppressing potential democratic rivals and by acquiescing in his own aggrandizement at the expense of building a state.
If Mubarak gets a reappraisal, it won’t be because a dispassionate reexamination of his legacy proves that he was better than we thought. Rather, it will be because distance from the events allows us to see his story as an example of human frailty. Lord Acton famously said that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—a maxim we often quote unthinkingly as a shorthand way of condemning those in charge. But there is a measure of absolution in those words. If those granted total control are doomed to abuse it, they are, in a sense, victims as much as villains. In this telling, the modest, unimaginative Mubarak, thrust by an accident of history atop the throne of the Arab world’s most populous country, could not have been expected to resist power’s intoxicating effect. He could have ruled no other way, nor met any other end.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Mubarak was offered by Sheik Muhammad Mitwalli Al-Sharawi, Egypt’s most popular television preacher, in 1995. Mubarak had just survived an assassination attempt by Islamist terrorists in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a laying-on of hands by Egypt’s men of religion was arranged. One by one, the turbaned sheiks raised fulsome hosannas. Sharawi, at this point a man in his 80s, now walked with a cane and his once-powerful voice trembled as he warned Mubarak’s would-be killers that the right to rule is not seized but rather granted by Allah. Amid this affirmation of Mubarak’s divine legitimacy, however, came a subtle warning. “If a ruler is unfair and unjust,” the old preacher declared, “he will be rendered hideous by his injustice, made ugly in the hearts of the people.” With great difficulty, he moved close to the president, placing his hand on his shoulder. Mubarak, perhaps unused to being handled in this manner, recoiled somewhat. “If you are our fate,” Sharawi said to him, “then may Allah grant you success. And if we are your fate, then may Allah help you to bear it.”