The Pharaoh’s Legacy
As Hosni Mubarak lies on his deathbed, he leaves behind a broken Egypt.
Hosni Mubarak is dead, or very close to it. The Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that the former president was pronounced clinically dead after having a stroke on the evening of June 19 -- a statement that was quickly denied by a member of the ruling military junta, who clarified that Mubarak was nevertheless in critical condition.
Hosni Mubarak is dead, or very close to it. The Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that the former president was pronounced clinically dead after having a stroke on the evening of June 19 — a statement that was quickly denied by a member of the ruling military junta, who clarified that Mubarak was nevertheless in critical condition.
Whatever the case, Mubarak’s final moments in a military hospital in Cairo would not be what many Egyptians had in mind when they sought justice and revenge for those who suffered at his hands. No doubt, his supporters would have preferred the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral honoring a man they believe was a transitional figure who had placed Egypt on the path of prosperity and even democracy.
For better or worse, Mubarak’s predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat were larger-than-life figures who accomplished big things, whether it was nationalization of the Suez Canal or negotiating peace with Israel. Once Mubarak, for all his failings, seemed larger than life himself; but he will not join their ranks. Instead, he will be remembered for the squalid politics, brutality, and repression that characterized the last decades of his long reign, and the mass demonstrations that ended it so abruptly.
Looking back over the late Mubarak period, it is hard to believe that his presidency began on October 14, 1981, with promise. Upon taking his first oath of office, it was possible to imagine Mubarak as a reformist. He struck a self-effacing tone, reached out to an opposition that had been in open revolt against Sadat, and promised to use judiciously Egypt’s emergency law, which gave the government extraconstitutional powers. In another gesture at reconciliation, soon after taking office, Mubarak emptied the jails of those Sadat had imprisoned and vowed to undertake political as well as economic reforms.
Nor was the Mubarak era strictly a period of economic stagnation. The country’s gross domestic product was approximately $40 billion when Mubarak entered office; on the eve of the uprising, it topped $145 billion. There were only 430,000 telephone lines in the entire country when Mubarak took power — by 2010, it had well over 12 million. In 1981, the life expectancy of the average Egyptian was 57 years old; it is now 70. The World Bank reports that the Egyptian literacy rate was less than 50 percent 30 years ago. Today, the literacy rate stands at 66 percent, though it remains dismally low for Egyptian women. But by the later Mubarak era, Egypt’s private sector was prospering, the levels of foreign direct investment were unprecedented, and the international business community began talking about Egypt as a promising "emerging market."
The statistics obscure more than they reveal, however. While the explosion of wealth and positive macro-economic indicators looked good, the working and middle class’ ability to make ends meet eroded — an ever-larger number of Egyptians were subsisting on $2 a day or less. As the wealth gap grew, popular anger at those on the top of the pyramid grew with it.
Yet the uprising that brought infamy to Mubarak was not, first and foremost, about economic grievances, but a political system that was rigged in a way to benefit Egypt’s leader and those closest to him. Political change, which became a mantra of the ruling National Democratic Party during Mubarak’s last decade, was a ruse.
Every reform that the state media hailed as the "strengthening" of democracy in fact only reinforced the unrivaled power of the party. For those who objected to this perverse state of affairs, Mubarak literally beat them into submission. Instead of using Sadat’s emergency law judiciously like he promised, Mubarak wielded the emergency law like a club and the jails that he emptied in 1981 overflowed once again.
In the end, Mubarak, who seemed to become larger as he diminished Egypt, gave in to the temptations and arrogance of seemingly absolute power. A little more than a month before the uprising, Mubarak dismissed with a wave of his hand the opposition’s efforts to establish a "shadow parliament" in protest over electoral fraud. "Let them have fun," he scoffed, sounding not unlike Marie Antoinette. It’s an ironic epitaph for a man who a few weeks later fled Cairo as untold numbers of Egyptians converged on his palace demanding his ouster.
Sadly, it is not just Mubarak that is on life support at this moment — Egypt’s creaky institutions and its nascent democracy are as well. Its politics are broken, its infrastructure in disrepair, its economy near collapse, its state education system in disarray, and its public health system nonexistent. If anything, this is the legacy of Hosni Mubarak: the evisceratation of his beloved country. Egypt has not "sold out" Mubarak, as he reportedly told his jailers upon entering prison. Rather, it was Mubarak who sold out Egypt, cheapened its national dignity, and brought it to its knees.
Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, will be published in June 2024. Twitter: @stevenacook
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