By Khaled Diab
To grasp the enormity of the change undergoing Egyptian society, it is well worth considering that, given Egypt’s ‘youth bulge’, the majority of Egyptians have either never known another president or dimly recall Hosni Mubarak’s predecessor from their early childhood. In addition, up until a few years ago when the opposition and the independent media broke the taboo, publicly criticising the president was one of the red lines that Egyptians crossed at their peril.
In power just shy of three decades, it looks unlikely that Mubarak will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his rule this October. From modest beginnings in a small village in the Nile Delta, he has the distinction of being Egypt’s longest-serving president in the republican era and its longest-serving ruler since Muhammad Ali in the first half of the 19th century.
This all very surprising for a man many dismissed as a political lightweight when he was appointed as the former president Anwar el-Sadat’s vice president in 1975. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak, as his deputy, took over and he has held the reins of power ever since. Though Egyptians regard him as charmless and he lacks the charisma of his predecessors, especially Gamal Abdel-Nasser, he has proven to be a dogged and cautious survivor, dodging numerous real and political bullets. Once respected for his role as chief of the air force in the 1973 war with Israel, today, he has united most of Egypt’s 80 million people in their hatred of him.
Not a totalitarian ruler in the Soviet sense of the word, his presidency can best be described as semi-authoritarian. He has remained in power through a combination of oppression, occasional reform, the co-opting of various power bases, including the new business elite, the loyalty of the army and the expansion of a formidable and hated state security apparatus. He also generated just enough growth and development, and left just enough room for dissent, to keep popular discontent from brewing over into open fury.
In the earlier years of his presidency, his supporters and even some of his critics acknowledged that he provided Egypt with stability in a highly volatile region. In terms of foreign relations, he has succeeded where his predecessors failed in terms of juggling the conflicting regional and international diplomatic demands. He not only managed to return Egypt to the Arab fold from which it was dismissed after making peace with Israel, he kept the country on friendly terms with the West.
Frustration with his presidency has been mounting steadily for the past decade for a variety of reasons, including rampant corruption, the growing inequality between the haves and have-nothings, youth unemployment, the growing desire for personal and political dignity and the wish that the 1952 “revolution” finally deliver on its promises of freedom.
When it began to seem like Mubarak not only wished to hold on to power until he died but that he was grooming his son, Gamal, to take over, activists decided that enough was enough and joined forces to oppose him, formally setting up the Kefaya (Enough) movement in 2004. Under this umbrella, activists and opposition figures of all political stripes agreed to a number of urgent priorities: the end of the Mubarak presidency, the rejection of a hereditary presidency, the end to the “emergency law” that has been in effect for almost his entire presidency, and constitutional reform to allow for free and fair elections.
Last year, Mohamed Elbaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner and the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was selected by the opposition to be the figurehead around whom they could rally. He set up the National Association for Change to unify the opposition against Mubarak in the run-up to the presidential elections later this year. Elbaradei is currently being touted as the possible interim leader of Egypt as part of a “national salvation” government until free and fair elections can be called.
This profile first appeared in Ukrainian Week on 3 February 2011.