Hosni Mubarak is dead, but the pharaoh state he helped build lives on
The tyrant reigned as Egypt’s fourth president for almost 30 years, taking over from Anwar Sadat following his assassination in 1981 until his ousting in 2011, when millions of Egyptians across the country protested against his rule of brutality, kleptocracy and a collective state of general despair caused by terminal economic stagnation.
In 1981, Sadat’s assassin Khaled Islambouli famously and triumphantly declared ‘I have killed pharaoh’, but if he thought this was an apt description of Sadat, he had no idea that his successor Mubarak would come to rule Egypt more like a pharaoh than any other leader in the modern history of the country.
It was Sadat who had begun El Infitah (liberalisation), which was a move away from Nasserism’s command economy with an emphasis on the public sector and towards a new era of domestic and foreign investment in the private sector.
Mubarak had been instrumental in setting up the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was a right-wing split from Nasser’s Socialist Union.
But despite the pretensions suggested by the NDP’s name, and Sadat allowing for a veneer of new democratic participation, it became clear that the NDP served as a means to simply open up what was effectively a one-party to state to political elites who had been opposed to Nasserist economics.
It became a conduit for a new system of what would become kleptocratic patronage – it evicted the Nasserist ruling classes and replaced them with those who were ideologically subservient to Sadat’s free market new order.
Mubarak and Pax Americana
With a new 'peace deal' with Israel following the 1973 war and the subsequent tethering of Egypt to the US via a vast military aid package, Egypt was moving away from Nasser’s ‘non-aligned’ and ‘pan-Arab’ advocacy and was becoming fully integrated into the pro-US world order.
Sadat had understood that Egyptian autonomy as a global or even regional actor would be hugely diminished by these new developments, while he also realised that it was imperative to impose a strict balance between the new rejuvenation of Egypt’s private sector with public sector provisions.
Hosni Mubarak had no such concerns.
Since the moment he took over in 1981, he compounded Sadat’s vicious authoritarianism by exploiting his predecessor’s assassination by imposing a 30-year-long state of emergency on the country that concretely ended even the most basic liberties – freedom of the press, free speech, freedom of assembly, which were already ambiguous under Sadat.
It was this move that provided Mubarak the wherewithal to push through much more radical ‘neoliberal’ reforms than those advanced by Sadat, ones that would lead to social destruction and thus would inevitable engender hostility towards the regime.
But with the media under his total control and his expansion of Egypt’s security forces, Mubarak could effectively do what he liked without fear of meaningful dissent.
As Mubarak oversaw a new order where public money was either siphoned off by the ruling elites or where loyal businesses, Egypt’s formerly efficient welfare state fell into ruin, while its once impressive state schools began a terminal decline. Mubarak’s Egypt was a kleptocracy – a state ruled by thieves who ‘restructured’ Egypt’s economy along the lines of corrupt patronage or granting of opportunities to foreign corporations.
The military elite suddenly went from being the vanguard under Nasser to an economic powerhouse under Mubarak, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) overseeing not just the defence of the country, but the looting of it. As the elites moved into gated and guarded communities, slums once again reappeared in Egypt, with millions of Egyptians plunged into poverty as a result of Mubarak’s now IMF and World Bank-supported policies.
Mubarak had absolutely no qualms about becoming a vicious henchman for the US, while the ‘peace deal’ with Israel, which had always been dubiously predicated on supporting justice for the Palestinians, became under Mubarak merely a means through which Egypt could draw closer to Israel, always at the expense of both Egyptians and Palestinians.
Timeline of Egypt's revolution. Article continues below interactive presentation
One of my last memories of Mubarak’s Egypt was when I visited Mansoura in 2010. As I drove by its famous Ophthalmology Hospital, there was a large billboard outside it showing Mubarak with a locally famous young patient whose eye ailment had been recently cured at the hospital. The slogan suggested that Mubarak himself had been involved in curing the blind girl – this was all par for the course of a God-King.
This was the kind of crude propaganda that Mubarak based his entire image on, with a cult of personality built on his largely mendacious acts of ‘heroism’ as an air force pilot during the 1973 war to liberate the Sinai from Israel. In reality, Mubarak was one of Israel’s closest allies – selling them cheap gas and even aiding them in the brutal siege on Gaza. Mubarak regarded Egyptians with despise, never mind Palestinians.
As Egypt began to fall into third world poverty, Mubarak had amassed an alleged fortune of $700 billion, much of it stashed in foreign bank accounts. This is the cost of the lifestyle of a pharaoh. Every single piastre of this money came at the expense of the long-suffering Egyptian people.
It was no surprise then that following his ouster, and after the coup against the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi by Sisi, while thousands of Egyptians faced show trials where they were sentenced to death or life imprisonment, Mubarak faced a different kind of show trial – one where what was on show was his predetermined innocence.
The old pharaoh would face no ‘justice’ from the new pharaoh – for to indict Mubarak would have been to indict Egypt’s entire ruling elite, SCAF and Sisi included.
If you had no idea who Hosni Mubarak was, you’ll no doubt see in the western media, co-existing with the odd critical piece, sub-hagiographies that will tell you that Mubarak, despite his faults, maintained ‘peace’ with Israel and was a ‘great ally’ of the West.
What you’re not likely to hear about is his true legacy in Egypt.
The Egypt where the population is expanding hugely without the level of infrastructure capable of dealing with the demands it brings, leading to slums and squalor. Or the extreme water scarcity that is about to reach crisis levels due to Ethiopia’s Renaissance dam - or the fact that the fascistic military thrive within Egypt like a tumour growing too close to a vital artery to be removed. Or the fact that Egyptians have to die at home in agony and indignity due to their local hospital simply not being able to provide them the treatment they need.
This is the legacy of Mubarak and it’s a living legacy that is now upkept by Sisi with new levels of counterrevolutionary savagery. His true successor Sisi is so bad that many Egyptians I know, who have been opposed to Mubarak for their entire lives, have begun to look back at his period with a sense not of fondness, but a kind of desperate nostalgia.
The pharaoh is dead, but the Egypt of rampant corruption and every day savagery that Mubarak had a definitive hand in creating is thriving.
Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.
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