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Judging Mubarak

The Egyptian legal system might have acquitted the late Hosni Mubarak of ordering a brutal clampdown on protesters. The verdict of history won’t be so kind.

Hosni Mubarak delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the annual conference of the National Democratic Party on December 25, 2010 in Cairo, Egypt. (Getty Images)

The head of parliament asked President Mubarak to prepare a farewell speech for the people of Egypt. The president replied: “Why? Where are they going?”

This is just one of the many jokes that circulated in the Egyptian streets during the uprising of 2011. That rebellion has even been called the “Laughing Revolution” (al-Thawra al-Dahika) because of the mocking language used by demonstrators in their slogans, songs, cartoons, and banners.

The aforementioned joke refers not only to Hosni Mubarak’s perceived denseness, or his alienation from the concerns of ordinary people, but also to his remarkable ability to cling onto power, even in the face of mass popular rejection of his rule. During the eighteen days of demonstrations and occupations from January 25, 2011, protesters chanted variations on the theme of “Just leave already!” (erhal ba), in evident exasperation with Mubarak’s obstinacy.

Since the 2000s, anti-Mubarak jokes had increasingly focused on the president’s seemingly everlasting rule. Egyptian political humor expressed not only a form of everyday subversion and resistance, but also a growing fatalism and a sense of powerlessness that was only broken by mobilizations of youth, workers, and farmers in the years leading up to the revolution.

The Laughing Cow

Mubarak had been in power since October 6, 1981, when an Islamist terror attack killed then-president Anwar Sadat in retaliation for his peace agreement with Israel. Although then–vice president Mubarak was Sadat’s legal successor, he had been chosen to occupy this role precisely because he lacked the charisma, ambition, and clout of his forerunner. As Sadat grew increasingly paranoid during the latter stages of his rule, he chose a successor who would not pose a direct threat to his presidency.

Unlike Sadat or Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Mubarak was not a prominent Arab nationalist leader. He did not come from the ranks of the Free Officers who had liberated Egypt from British neocolonial dominion. The transition from Sadat to Mubarak went hand in hand with the degeneration of Arab nationalism from a national-popular will to sovereignty and social justice to a mummified and empty ideology. Mubarak did not wish to rally the masses to support him, merely to soothe them. He promised not revolution, but stability.

From the vantage point of 2011, it was difficult to believe that three decades earlier, many people had welcomed Mubarak’s rule. Born in 1928 into a lower-middle-class family in the provincial Nile Delta district of Menoufia, the new president became identified with the stereotype — not entirely unfriendly — of the fellah: the greedy, lazy, and dull peasant. Mubarak was even nicknamed La Vache Qui Rit, after the prepackaged French cheese that became available on the Egyptian market.

The first decade of Mubarak’s reign was indeed the most likely to inspire sympathy, because of the new president’s careful political maneuvering, and the regime’s ability to postpone neoliberal reforms that were sweeping across the region. Mubarak came to power in an unstable national and geopolitical context. Within Egypt, he faced opposition not only from Islamists — ranging from radical organizations such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group to the Muslim Brotherhood — but also from a resurgent left, and from factions within the military and security-state elites who saw the new president as a mere puppet for their own interests.

In January 1977, a spontaneous revolt against IMF-proposed austerity plans had shaken Sadat’s regime. Sadat gave in and withdrew the austerity measures, but cracked down on left-wing and Islamist opposition forces, effectively turning the whole of society against his rule. Internationally, the Camp David Accords with Israel had secured Sadat the diplomatic, military, and financial support of the West. However, the rapprochement with Israel also resulted in Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League — a formal gesture that signified the end of Egypt’s leading role in the region.

During the first years of his rule, Mubarak succeeded in pacifying domestic opposition forces and normalizing relations with the other Arab states. Although the position of the military in Egyptian society was eroding, to the advantage of the regime’s National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Interior Ministry, there was still a danger of a coup against the new president. In 1986, the charismatic and popular minister of defense, Abd Al-Halim Abu-Ghazala, considered by many the second-most powerful man in Egypt, had to save the regime from an uprising of police conscripts. Three years later, Mubarak was able to sideline him, successfully neutralizing any danger from the armed forces.

Co-Opting Dissent

When faced with civilian opposition, instead of relying purely on coercion, the new president initiated a process of limited and carefully circumscribed political liberalization. Mubarak ordered the release of communist, Islamist, Coptic (Egyptian Christian), and independent political prisoners. He changed the electoral system from a majoritarian one to a proportional representation system, allowed parties such as the leftist Tagammu and the liberal Wafd to participate, and lifted the ban on leftist and Islamist opposition papers such as Al-Ahali and Al-Shaab. The president also relaxed state control over the judiciary, the universities, and the professional syndicates.

This political liberalization did not mean there would be a genuine transition toward liberal democracy. Through patronage, fraud, and its entwinement with the state apparatus, the NDP still dominated elections. Although media censorship was eased, there were still “red lines” that could not be crossed, such as writing about the president’s health. Spontaneous demonstrations and strikes were still banned.

Crucially, leftists were co-opted and seduced into the sham democratic system. The experience of the crushed 1977 insurrection had left communists and Nasserists doubtful about the possibility of change from below. Moreover, the defensive struggle of the Left against rising Islamist movements in the 1970s led some to the belief that “Islamic fascism” was a bigger threat than the authoritarian regime. According to this viewpoint, what was needed now was a “secular front” against the danger of Islamic fundamentalism.

In exchange for moving away from street and workplace politics, Tagammu — which had more or less served as a legal front of the Egyptian Communist Party (ECP), and which had been at the forefront of the 1970s worker and student struggles — was permitted to enter the regime-dominated political arena. The abandonment of the “legal” left’s capacity to mobilize rendered them harmless for the regime and incapable of winning elections. Having once been mass parties, by the 1990s Tagammu and its underground twin, the ECP, had devolved into a political talking shop.

Far from being thickheaded, Mubarak showed his political cunning during the 1980s, disarming the opposition by absorbing it into the state. Even the Muslim Brotherhood became a “loyal opposition,” with its cadres allowed to infiltrate the professional syndicates and take part in parliamentary elections as independents, thereby becoming the largest organized opposition force. Until the parliamentary elections of November 2010, the Brotherhood would play the part of “loyal opposition”: criticizing the excesses of the Mubarak state while avoiding all-out confrontation. Conversely, the regime erratically clamped down on Brotherhood leaders and activists, without fully banning the movement’s activities.

Mubarak’s initial weak position made this strategy of co-optation necessary, but it was also enabled by new sources of state income that made it possible to continue populist redistributive policies and preserve social and political peace. The October War of 1973 had resulted in the reopening of the Suez Canal, which created a steady stream of revenue for the state. The rise of khaleeji capital attracted Egyptian workers to the Gulf, which reduced the pressure on the domestic labor market and led to the influx of petrodollars into Egypt through remittances.

In return for peace with Israel, Egypt received US military and financial support worth $1.5 billion a year, a form of geopolitical or mercenary rent. To this day Egypt remains the second-largest recipient of US foreign assistance, after Israel. Rapprochement with the West also brought mass tourism to Egypt.

Lean Times

By the start of the 1990s, the economic and political picture had changed dramatically. The collapse of oil prices in the second half of the 1980s reduced the value of remittances from the Gulf. High inflation depressed wages. The national debt rose to more than $28 billion, and the budget deficit soared to over 20 percent of GDP. The state was unable to pay back its military debts.

In 1991, Mubarak negotiated the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme to end the fiscal crisis. Unlike earlier “stabilization” packages, international aid now came with a more radical, neoliberal economic agenda that involved cuts to state subsidies, the privatization of public companies, commercialization of land ownership, wage freezes, and the liberalization of markets and prices. In the countryside, the state found willing allies among the large landowners who were ready to engage in large-scale cash-crop production. The state abrogated Nasser’s land reforms, returning lands to the hands of rural capitalists.

A rise in land rents and the concentration of landholdings threatened the livelihoods of some five million Egyptians. Landowners called in police troops and thugs to chase farmers from their lands. In the industrial sector, half of the state-owned companies had been privatized or liquidated by 2002. State enterprises were often sold at knockdown prices, and privatization led to mass sackings of workers, with lower wages and worsening conditions for those who remained on the payroll. Cutting back on public services and subsidies for food and fuel increased poverty.

This economic onslaught on people’s livelihoods coincided with an attack on political liberties. The state increased its direct control over parliament, the professional syndicates, NGOs, the parties, and the media. Opposition activists and journalists faced systematic imprisonment and torture. In spite of this, the “old left” and the Coptic minority remained firmly tied to the regime, because of a resurgence of Islamist terrorist attacks, and the state’s defense of “secularism” in the cultural domain.

The state also managed to co-opt intellectuals by sponsoring cultural institutions such as the Cairo International Book Fair, the Cairo Opera House, and the Alexandria Library, and by fostering new financial streams and platforms for writers and artists. Mubarak’s wife Suzanne took the lead in state feminist initiatives such as the National Council for Women.

Downfall

In opposition to the compliance of the “legal left,” a “new left” began to emerge, comprised of radical NGOs, civil platforms such as Kefaya (Enough), independent trade-union committees, and underground parties and organizations such as the Nasserist Al-Karama (Dignity) Party and the Revolutionary Socialist Tendency. In 2000 and 2003, street politics returned to Egypt, with mass protests in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada and against the invasion of Iraq.

In the same period, Mubarak retreated from all but the most orchestrated public appearances, becoming a shadowy figure who pulled the strings — the “Big Man” of Alaa al-Aswany’s 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building. From 2000 onward, the youngest of Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal Mubarak, seemed to be in line as his father’s chosen successor, as he became the head of the NDP’s leading policy committee. Fearing a repeat of the Syrian scenario, where Bashar al-Assad had seamlessly replaced his father Hafez al-Assad, political movements began to call for democracy and fair elections. Worker strikes, culminating in the April 6 uprising of 2008 in Mahalla el-Kubra, also contested the neoliberal reforms.

These movements prepared the way for the January 25 uprising. During the eighteen days of the insurrection, Mubarak made three televised appearances, appearing both defiant and accommodating. In his last speech on February 10, he promised concessions but still refused to resign. Huge demonstrations the next day ramped up the pressure. At that point, the newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman handed over power to the military.

Mubarak’s ink-black dyed hair has been the subject of many jokes since he became president. The president’s everlastingly black coiffure — people claimed he had more grey hairs in 1981 than in 2011 — became yet another symbol of his perpetual rule, long past its expiry date. After the uprising, Mubarak’s next public appearance came at his trial, which began on August 3, 2011. The former president lay on a hospital bed in a cage. Rumors about his deteriorating health had been circulating since 2010. Yet he seemed quite lucid — and his hair was still dyed black, indicating that he wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Instead of delivering justice, his trial turned into a soap opera whose plot reflected the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution, as the democratic hopes of 2011 slowly curdled. On June 2, 2012, Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the killing of protesters during the uprising, but found not guilty of ordering the violent repression.

In January 2013, Mubarak’s sentence was overturned and a retrial ordered. On August 21, less than three months after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup, he was released from prison but put under house arrest, awaiting the retrial. In the run-up to the presidential elections of 2014, Mubarak gave an interview, praising Sisi’s qualities and criticizing his Nasserist opponent Hamdeen Sabahi.

In November 2014, the Cairo Criminal Court dropped all murder charges against the former president. The following May, Mubarak received a sentence of just three years in prison for embezzlement — three years that he had already served waiting for his retrial. Two years later, the Court of Cassation acquitted him of complicity in the killing of protesters. Mubarak died on February 25, 2020 at the age of ninety-one, a free man. In a country that now has sixty thousand political prisoners, many of his compatriots were not so lucky.