Hosni Mubarak: The godfather of Egypt’s corrupt police state

Hosni Mubarak: The godfather of Egypt’s corrupt police state
Hosni Mubarak died on Tuesday at the age of 91. His uninspired rule lasted for 29 years and saw the entrenchment of corruption and the institutionalisation of a police state.
6 min read
25 February, 2020
Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s longest serving ruler since the 19th century [Getty]

Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak died on Tuesday at a military hospital in Cairo, aged 91, having ruled for more than 29 years until Arab Spring protests led to his overthrew in February 2011.

When he came to power after the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981, few people expected that he would become Egypt's longest reigning ruler since the 19th Century.

Born in the village of Kafr El-Meselha, north of Cairo, in May 1928, Mubarak joined the Egyptian Air Force in 1950. Shortly after Egypt's devastating defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, he was put in charge of Egypt's Air Force Academy and credited with doubling the number of air force pilots during his tenure.

In 1972, he was appointed Commander of the Egyptian Air Force and it was in the following year's Arab-Israeli war that he rose to public prominence.

Mubarak was involved in planning Egypt's surprise attack on Israeli forces, who had occupied the Sinai Peninsula, in 1973. Egyptian fighter pilots performed excellently in the war.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war - although not quite a military victory for Egypt - restored the country's pride and self-confidence and Mubarak emerged as a national hero, although some Egyptians later disputed his contribution.

Mubarak was promoted to Air Chief Marshal in recognition of his efforts and in 1975 became Anwar Al-Sadat's vice president, playing a key foreign policy role in Egypt at a time when the country was preparing to make peace with Israel.

He developed personal friendships with key Arab leaders, such as Saudi Prince (later King) Fahd and Moroccan King Hassan II during this time.

After President Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, other Arab countries cut all ties with Cairo and expelled it from the Arab League.

Sadat was assassinated by members of the Islamic Jihad militant group in 1981, Mubarak inherited a system which gave him absolute power and he would take advantage of this throughout his presidency.

Mubarak's predecessor became increasingly paranoid in his final years in office, arresting thousands of political dissidents, clerics, and intellectuals following a brief period of limited liberalisation.

As one of his first acts as president, Mubarak released most activists that Sadat had imprisoned, but refused to let go of the absolute power he had attained.

Between 1981 and 2005, there were no presidential elections in Egypt. Instead, there were presidential referendums every six years where Mubarak stood as the only candidate with voters being given a choice of saying "yes" or "no".

Mubarak won over 93 percent of the votes in every single one of these sham referendums, making a mockery of democracy.

In the only presidential election where opposition candidates were allowed to stand, held in 2005, Mubarak supposedly received 88 percent of the vote.

Ayman Nour, a liberal candidate who dared to run against him, was imprisoned a few weeks after the election, and only released in 2009 following intense US pressure.

While Mubarak, like Sadat before him, permitted token opposition activity and the formation of powerless parties, there were no protections for politicians or intellectuals, who could be arrested at any time.

Parliamentary elections were rigged in favour of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which was always guaranteed an overwhelming majority in Egypt's rubber-stamp parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, was formally banned but its activities were sometimes tolerated, sometimes cracked down on, by Mubarak's regime.

Throughout Mubarak's rule the country was governed by "Emergency Law" which suspended constitutional rights and allowed security forces to imprison opposition activists without charge or trial.

Egypt under Mubarak's rule became an archetypal police state with security forces given free rein to arrest and torture who they wanted.

With dictatorship came corruption. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the US provided Egypt with billions of dollars in aid every year. Even though official statistics showed that Egypt was economically better off under Mubarak, millions lived in poverty while a minority enriched itself at their expense.

The country experienced dangerous levels of inequality under Mubarak's rule.

Businessmen and their relatives drove expensive cars and partied at five star hotels in downtown Cairo, while barefoot children begged and slept on the streets of the capital.

An estimated 70,000 Egyptians held assets of more than $5 million while half the population lived on $1.50 a day or less.

The corruption-fuelled success of Mubarak's sons Gamal and Alaa in business stirred the outrage of ordinary Egyptians and became a symbol of the venality of the president and his family.

Mubarak not only gave his sons free economic rein, but he also groomed his elder son Gamal to take over the presidency after his death, leading opposition activists to launch a campaign called "No to Inheritance".

After Mubarak fell from power, the total wealth amassed by his family was estimated at a staggering $70 billion, with some sources claiming Mubarak and his sons were worth $700 billion.

Compared to his predecessors Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak was an uninspiring figure.

While Nasser and Sadat were no less authoritarian, both of them were eloquent speakers and managed to offer Egyptians hope for the future.

Nasser came to power in the era of decolonisation and offered Egyptians a vision of independence, socialism, and leadership of the Arab World.

By the time Mubarak came to power, this vision proved to be illusory and outdated, offering Egyptians nothing but the status quo.

Mubarak was mocked behind his back for his boorishness and lack of refinement whenever he appeared in public. He was nicknamed "La Vache Qui Rit" ("The Laughing Cow") after a French brand of cheese which became popular in Egypt.

In many ways it was miraculous that such an uninspiring and corrupt figure with so little to offer would stay in power for such a long time.

However, rather than proving stable, his regime eventually showed itself to be moribund and Mubarak's authoritarianism and promotion of inequality and corruption proved to be a key factor in the emergence of the 2011 movement which overthrew him, with its slogan, "Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice".

In terms of foreign policy Mubarak aligned Egypt firmly with the US, proving to be pliant and subservient to the global superpower as Egypt became dependent on US aid.

He maintained the peace agreement with Israel that Sadat signed but initially refused to visit Israel and discouraged cultural exchanges and normalisation.

By 1989, Egypt was welcomed back into the Arab fold and its suspension from the Arab League was lifted.

Mubarak sent Egyptian troops to the Gulf in 1990 to take part in the first US-led war against Iraq and liberate Kuwait. He was rewarded with debts owed by Egypt to the Gulf states being forgiven.

However, later on in reign, he became a hate figure in the Arab world when he collaborated with Israel during its siege of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007.

He was believed to have tacitly endorsed Israel's deadly 2008-09 war against Gaza.

While Mubarak has now passed away, the system he nurtured lives on and is more vicious than ever.

Mubarak's democratically elected successor Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, after only one year in office by the bloated and corrupt army which propped up Mubarak's rule.

Mubarak was charged with involvement in the killing of protesters after the 2011 revolution but was acquitted of all charges in 2017.

In prison, Mubarak reportedly received "royal treatment" in contrast to his hapless successor Morsi, who died at the age of 67 in a courtroom after suffering deliberate medical neglect.

While Mubarak ceased to be president of Egypt nine years ago, the system he created survived the revolution which overthrew him and is likely to remain for a long time to come.

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