Hosni Mubarak, the President Who Founded the Republican Monarchy

Hosni Mubarak is often described as a dictator, but his legacy is complicated. While ruling Egypt with an iron fist, he was a stable leader on economic and diplomatic fronts

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Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on November 24, 1982.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on November 24, 1982.Credit: AFP

Nine years ago this month Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office after 30 years in power. His remaining years were spent under arrest, in prison and in court, before he was acquitted of the charges against him in 2017.

Israeli intelligence had predicted his demise years ago when it discovered that he had cancer of the pancreas. Mubarak may have been the longest-lived “pancreatic cancer patient” in history.

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Rumors of his impending death surfaced from time to time, until the Egyptian government prohibited media outlets from publishing his daily medical bulletin. The decision came after an opposition journalist reported that Mubarak suffered from an irregular heartbeat that caused him to faint and lose consciousness. The journalist, Ibrahim Issa, was prosecuted for spreading false information that undermined the national economy because the day he published his report, the Egyptian stock exchange plunged.

The report of Mubarak’s death on Tuesday was issued with the approval of his family. On Sunday and Monday his son Alaa Mubarak tweeted that his father was in intensive care and that the public should pray for him.

The period of Mubarak’s regime was accurately described by sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who called it a “jumlikiya,” a hybrid word he made up that combines the Arabic words for republic and monarchy.

Hosni Mubarak meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, September 14, 2010.
Hosni Mubarak meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, September 14, 2010.Credit: AP

The republic side was represented by the parliament, which acted as a rubber stamp for each of Mubarak’s decisions or caprices; the elections, which were an ongoing joke, in which Mubarak would win between 95 percent and 99 percent of the vote; and the constitution, which on the face of it protected human rights but in actuality subordinated them to the diktats of the president and his bureaucracies.

The “monarchical” side referred to how Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, treated the country as if it were their personal fiefdom. Together they accumulated property and enormous wealth, the extent of which is not fully known.

They established a thick layer of cronies, businessmen and political activists around them who created corrupt bureaucratic mechanisms. These drowned Egypt in a sea of debt that left no money for development or economic recovery and created enormous strata of poverty in which one in every five Egyptians lived below the poverty line and the gross domestic product was a mere $6,500 per capita.

But Mubarak was also the president who stabilized the state’s economy, enlarged its foreign currency reserves and implemented a privatization plan that toward the end of his time in office saw annual economic growth that exceeded 6 percent. But these achievements, which were praised by international financial institutions, didn’t trickle down to the middle or lower classes. This contributed to a deepening of the gap between the thin upper crust and the rest of the population and nurtured the Arab Spring that removed Mubarak from office.

On the diplomatic front, Mubarak was a leader who worked to maintain the status quo, without sensational initiatives or wars. He inherited the peace agreement with Israel from his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, who was murdered by Islamist assassins in 1981. Mubarak made sure to uphold the letter of the agreement but did not act to turn the cold peace between governments into a peace between peoples.

He visited Israel just once, for the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and treated the boycott by Egyptian intellectuals of their Israeli counterparts with understanding, if not agreement. On the other hand, whenever Arab leaders called on him to join a military campaign against Israel, he made it clear to them that Egypt had adopted peace as a strategic choice and that anyone wanting to go to war against Israel would have to do so without any help from Egypt.

Hosni Mubarak with Yasser Arafat, watching an Egyptian air force air show at a base near the town of Bilbeis,  July 14, 1996.
Hosni Mubarak with Yasser Arafat, watching an Egyptian air force air show at a base near the town of Bilbeis, July 14, 1996.Credit: NORBERT SCHILLER,AP

The Egyptian military never stopped seeing Israel as a potential enemy, training to fight “the enemy” without saying its name during exercises. However, Mubarak made it clear that peace with Israel relieved Egypt of having to worry about its eastern front and also brought it two significant benefits: The regular foreign aid from the United States that was part of the Camp David Accords, and the close relationship with successive U.S. administrations that helped Egypt equip and arm itself, as well as obtain loans from international institutions.

Having to cope with both Arab and domestic political pressures for upholding the peace treaty with Israel, which led to Egypt’s isolation, combined with the desire to preserve ties with Israel and the United States, forced Mubarak to steer his foreign policy carefully and without dramatic changes. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, his reaction was almost apathetic; it was only the massacre at Sabra and Chatila that moved him to recall the Egyptian ambassador to Cairo. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights and the autonomy talks with the Palestinians failed, he responded by turning down the temperature on Egypt's relationship with Israel, but he didn’t sever ties.

His relationship with Washington was often a roller coaster. Mubarak opposed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein during the second Gulf War, saying – as if speaking about himself – that Saddam was the only one who knew how to manage a fractious Iraq. He did not visit the United States between 2004 and 2009, after having gone there every year. He believed that President Barack Obama sought to remove him and even said so explicitly after he was ousted. But he maintained personal ties with presidents and other senior U.S. officials as part of his balanced policy, and as a result was considered a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East.

In his own country Mubarak was seen as a symbol of dictatorship and oppression for years, but paradoxically, it was during the final years of his rule that he relaxed the iron fist with which he beat down his critics and opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood; he allowed the distribution of many more newspapers than at the start of his rule and the opening of new media outlets. Egypt recognized this only years after he was deposed, when Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi came to power in 2013 and launched a policy of suppression and persecution that was considered far worse than what existed under Mubarak. He cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, arrested human rights activists and journalists, restricted freedom of expression and assembly and amended the constitution to allow himself to remain in power at least another 10 years, establishing himself in Egypt as Mubarak’s dark side. This is what remains of Mubarak’s legacy.

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