Even as a child, Hosni Mubarak, the future pilot and president of Egypt, was always looking to the sky. In rural Mounifa in the Nile Delta in 1928 ( the year he was born) it was a common site to see the pigeons returning to the “the “pigeon towers” each night which were used to collect their droppings for fertilizer. This ancient technique is still used throughout the region. It was perhaps in some ways a natural evolution for him to choose the air force when duty called. His air force career took him from being a Spitfire pilot in 1973 to playing the leading role in Egypt’s air campaign during the 1973 war. During the 1950s and 1960s he spent long periods in Moscow and what is today Kyrgyzstan receiving training in the latest Soviet warplanes.
After 1973, Mubarak applied his military skills to a regimented diplomatic offensive after becoming vice president in 1975. He charmed Arab leaders, many of whom were hostile to Egypt’s peace overtures with Israel. Meanwhile President Anwar Sadat worked on charming Western leaders like Jimmy Carter and even hosting Frank Sinatra during a visit to Egypt that involved a stay at the famed Mena Hotel in front of Pyramids.
Of course Sadat and Mubark came to celebrate the events of the 1973 War and Egypt’s historic crossing of the Suez Canal – an event the Egyptian military had planned for carefully. The October 6, 1981 event to commemorate the crossing was supposed to be like any other. When a soldier dismounted from a troop carrier and approached the stand where Sadat was seated, no one stirred from their seats, save the Egyptian president, dressed in a military uniform, who stood expecting it was part of the show. Mubarak, seated to the president’s right froze. Shouting “Death to the Pharaoh” the soldier and his terrorist comrades soon opened fire and threw grenades into the stands. Sadat and ten others were killed. Some 28 were injured, including four American soldiers – perhaps the first Americans to be wounded by takfiri jihadist terrorism.
Video of the incident (above) shows Mubarak arriving for the day with Sadat smiling and much later fleeing off camera clutching at a wound in his side. Many were unsure how long Mubarak would remain in power.
Despite his training in the Soviet Union, he rapidly became America’s best Arab friend in the region. Most of the “Arab-Israeli” wars were in actuality “Egyptian-Israeli Wars” Egyptian historians like to say, given that it was the land of the Nile which did the bulk of the fighting. Mubarak brought Egypt 30 years of peace (internal unrest aside) save for Egypt’s involvement in the 1991 Gulf War (for which it received international debt relief). In the aftermath of that conflict Mubarak’s government tried to rally the Arabs to create a unified military force. He was also one of the first Arab leaders to take seriously the notion that Iran, not Saddam’s Iraq, was the bigger threat to regional stability.
This was dramatically demonstrated in April 1992 when Iranian jets attacked a People’s Mujahideen (MEK) facility in Iraq. Iran saw an apparent opportunity to renew its obsession with defeating the MEK which has long been a thorn in the side of the clerical regime. The attack was considered so egregious that the United States who was enforcing a no-fly zone on Iraq allowed the Iraqi Air Force to respond. Yet, this Iranian strike received little international response. Yet, barely a week later Iran also seized a disputed island controlled by the United Arab Emirates.
Mubarak’s government sounded the alarm over these two incidents but, there was little interest (read money) in seeing an Egypt backed Arab Legion formed in the Gulf. For his part Mubarak took nearly annual trips to Washington often taking time to answer questions from journalists – most notably Charlie Rose.
Conversely, in Egypt the local press was muzzled and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel ensured the country was spared the worst of the criticism by the international media.
Mubarak who used torture, rape and other human rights violations against his opponents also tried to stage manage the state’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was allowed to operate within the social sphere and to run for a few seats in the parliament. Meanwhile, informants and infiltrators from the Mukhabarat – the dreaded state security services — kept a watchful eye for potential terrorists amongst their ranks.
By the 1990s, the Egyptian economy with international aid and guidance was growing. However, Mubarak left in place bread, fuel and rent control subsidies for the masses.
Egyptians made the most of Pax Mubaraka.
In 1993, the Rand Corporation reported the population growth rate in Egypt was 2.6%, equivalent to one child every 27 seconds. In 1981, when Mubarak took power, Egypt was home to 45 million people. By 2020 it had risen to 100 million. Millions of Egyptians were soon living in the ashawiat – informal slums on the edge of Cairo and all other Egyptian cities. In Mubarak’s time subsidized bread and fuel may have gave them life but, little hope as unemployment soared.
Businesses that were privatized were often handed to friends. One of those was Nile Cotton Gining, a massive state enterprise that had employed thousands of workers and continued operations despite being unprofitable. The whole time a shadow economy of economic institutions controlled by the military began to grow in part due to policies focused on economic self-sufficiency started by Anwar Sadat. The citizens of most countries want a military that can defend the nation. In Egypt, it also made pasta and managed hotels.
The politics discussed in Egyptian cafes over whiskey colored cups of tea and the smoke of cheap cigarettes or water pipers was increasingly critical of Mubarak as time went on.
By the turn of the millennium Mubarak, the former war hero, seemed out of touch. The 2008 Egyptian film “The President’s Chef” is a comedy about an out-of-touch Egyptian president whose chef takes him undercover to try the subsidized bread which many Egyptians rely on for sustenance. Bread has long been so vital for Egyptian civilization that “aeysh” the Egyptian Arabic word for bread also means life. In the film, the fictional president promises reforms. In the real world those reforms never happened.
A series of commercials in 2010 for a cheese company feature a devastating and out of touch giant Panda who terrorizes the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Many saw Mubarak in the commercials. Unlike Egypt’s current authoritarian leader General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Mubarak allowed some space for criticism of his regime. Egypt’s current ruler would never tolerate even such comical criticisms.
“The only group who benefited under Mubarak’s rule was the Muslim Brotherhood; they managed to rebuild their support under his regime,” says Mina Rizkalla Abdellah, a fellow with the Philos Project, an NGO focused on Christians in the Middle East.
The Egyptian military and many in Egyptian society above all resented Mubarak for grooming his son Gamal Mubarak to be his successor. The example of Syria, where Bashar Al Assad succeeded his father Hafiz as the country’s ruler may have inspired Mubarak’s ambitions in this regard.
He also made enemies that his military training never prepared him for.
“This matchbox! All this noise is coming out of this matchbox?” he is said to have quipped while touring Al-Jazeera’s office in Doha.
During the 2011 protests it was wall-to-wall coverage on Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera which would contribute to his downfall, and the protests of thousands in the streets and on social media. Such outlets were quick to accuse Mubarak of stealing billions from the Egyptian people as the protests grew.
In the months leading up to Mubarak’s downfall Egyptian politics had grown noticeably unstable. Few of the foreign correspondents in Cairo may have noticed. The real action was in Alexandria – the coastal city which was once Egypt’s capital.
On New Year’s Eve 2011, a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria’s Sidi Bashr district the worst incident of intercommunal violence in sometime. When 26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia sparking the Jasmine Revolution, four Egyptian men soon copied him. Only Alexandria’s Ahmed Hashim al-Sayyed would die. But, most of all was the apparent murder by Egyptian police of Alexandrian Khaled Saed in 2010. The “We Are All Khaled Saed” Facebook group attracted millions of Egyptians who saw themselves in the young man. It would become an important hub for those who would organize the protests against Mubarak which erupted on January 25, 2011 in Tahrir Square.
The events were shown live on televisions around the world but, the real drama occurred behind the scenes as the Egyptian military used the uprising to plan a coup which succeeded on February 11, 2011. Defiant to the last Mubarak choose internal exile with his wife Suzanne and flew to Sharm-El-Shiekh in the Sinai Peninsula. He was soon arrested after a de facto vacation and faced a nominal trial for his role in the violence used by the Egyptian state in suppressing the 2013 revolution; he was later acquitted.
For many Egyptians, given the tumult that followed him and the far more oppressive rule of Egypt’s current President Fatah Al Sissi, the Mubarak rule can seem quaint.
In a popular joke told about Mubarak’s death in 2011, the Egyptian president dies and meets his predecessor Anwar Sadat in heaven.
“What killed you? Bullets? Bombs? The Israelis?” An exasperated Sadat asks.
“No, No Facebook,” Mubarak replies.
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