Death on the Nile

Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for three decades, leaving a legacy of oppression and corruption.

Then-Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak (left) and President Anwar Sadat watch a military parade in Cairo moments before Sadat is assassinated on Oct. 6, 1981.
Then-Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak (left) and President Anwar Sadat watch a military parade in Cairo moments before Sadat is assassinated on Oct. 6, 1981. AFP PHOTO/AFP/Getty Images

Hosni Mubarak’s first days in power could not have been more difficult.

It was October 1981, and Mubarak had been lightly wounded in the spray of bullets and grenade fragments that killed President Anwar Sadat, having sat to his right on the viewing stand of a military parade in Cairo. Without time to recuperate, Mubarak had to restore order in Egypt, assess the scope of the rebellion in the military (Sadat’s assassins had been uniformed soldiers active in an Islamist underground), and make a quick decision about the future of the country’s relationship with Israel.

Mubarak, who died Tuesday in an Egyptian military hospital at 91, acted decisively. He declared a yearlong state of emergency that he would renew again and again. He purged the military of opponents and sent troops to put down an Islamist insurrection in the south. And he quickly assured Israel and the United States that he would honor every word of the Camp David peace agreement, a 3-year-old accord that had cost Egypt its leadership role in the Arab world and left it deeply isolated.

For the West, certainly, it was Mubarak’s finest hour. 

For Egyptians, though, it marked the start of three decades of tyranny and corruption, an era that ended with the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and his dramatic ouster. Mubarak was stripped of power, convicted as an accomplice in the killing of protesters during the 18 days that transformed Egypt that year, and given a life sentence. His two sons were imprisoned as well. 

Between the bookends, Mubarak had a substantial impact on Egyptians but rarely made their lives better. He deepened his alliance with the United States, reinforcing a trend in the Arab world away from dependence on the Soviet Union and toward a market economy, albeit a dysfunctional one. He dealt firmly with the Muslim Brotherhood, a strategy that blocked the group’s rise for decades but also helped power its surge after he was deposed. Washington rewarded Mubarak with more than $60 billion in mostly military aid over the decades for his policies but paid its own price for supporting Arab despots—in the form of resentment from the Muslim masses.

“His major success was stability,” Amin Mubarak, a cousin of the former president who served for years as a member of parliament from the ruling National Democratic Party, told me in Cairo in 2012. For many Egyptians, that just meant stable measures of hardship and unemployment. Even now, nearly one-third of the population lives below or near the poverty line. 

Mubarak was born in 1928, the same year a band of Egyptians established the Muslim Brotherhood. He grew up in a small town about an hour north of Cairo but left to pursue a military career and returned for visits only rarely, according to relatives. After graduating from Egypt’s Military Academy, he transferred to the Air Force, learned to fly, and began climbing the ranks.

Had Mubarak been a few years older, his rise would likely have stalled with the humiliation of the 1967 war against Israel, a defeat so ignoble that it ended the careers of many Arab generals.

Instead, Mubarak ascended to the position of Air Force chief just in time for the 1973 war, which Arabs celebrate as a victory. (Arab armies surprised Israel and inflicted heavy casualties but ultimately failed to capture territory.) Though Mubarak’s record in the war is disputed, Sadat hailed him as a hero and eventually appointed him vice president. It was the eighth anniversary of the ’73 war that the two men were marking at the parade when Sadat was assassinated.

Mubarak was 53 when he was sworn in, flanked by his half-British wife, Suzanne, and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal—all three of whom would play a role in his demise decades later. Within nine years, he managed to restore ties with most Arab countries, relations that had been severed over Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. He also restored Egypt to its position as leader of the Arab world; Cairo once again became the seat of the Arab League.

But recovering that status never translated into broad popularity at home. To shore up his rule, Mubarak vastly expanded the secret police, which regularly tortured Islamists and other opponents of the regime. The emergency powers he continued renewing meant security forces could arrest people for no reason and detain them indefinitely.

The tyranny gave rise to a string of jokes about Mubarak, some poking fun at his police state, others at the corruption and cronyism that surrounded him. The humor reflected a grim reality. Though Egypt’s economy began growing substantially from around the start of the millennium, those who benefited were mostly the rich and the politically connected.

“That increase in GDP growth brought unprecedented levels of inequality, corruption, and a number of social ills,” Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egypt and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me after Mubarak’s ouster.

He said the inequality created a paradoxical situation: The more economic growth Egypt experienced, the more frustrated ordinary Egyptians grew with the Mubarak regime.

Mubarak’s family drama contributed to the frustration. Starting as early as 2000, there were signs that Gamal Mubarak was being groomed to inherit power from his father. People close to the family said Hosni Mubarak initially dismissed the idea but that Suzanne kept pushing Gamal forward.

“She enjoyed being the first lady, and she did not like the idea of going back to the pre-presidential situation and live like just an ordinary lady,” Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, a high-profile lawyer in Egypt who had regular contact with the Mubaraks, told me in 2012.

The idea of inherited power angered many Egyptians. It also appeared to have incensed the military, the pool from which Egypt’s previous presidents were drawn. When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to demand Mubarak’s ouster, the military refused to intervene, sealing Mubarak’s fate.

With the tyrant gone, Egypt’s first democratic election brought the Islamists to power. Mubarak languished in a military hospital, detained and depressed. But a 2013 coup shifted power back to the military and paved the way for Mubarak’s rehabilitation. In 2015, a judge downgraded his culpability from killing to corruption. An appellate court acquitted him altogether two years later. The era of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president, has become so oppressive that some Egyptians feel nostalgic for Mubarak.

“This dear nation … is where I lived. I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty, and interests,” Mubarak said in a speech 10 days before his ouster in 2011. “On its soil, I will die. History will judge me like it did others.”

Dan Ephron is the executive editor for news and podcasts at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @danephron