The Whole World Got Hosni Mubarak Wrong

The eulogies for Egypt’s fourth president focused on his downfall, but history will remember his overlooked accomplishments while in office.

A supporter of Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak lifts a picture of the late leader
A supporter of Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak lifts a picture of the late leader near the family cemetery where he will be buried, in the Heliopolis neighborhood in the capital, Cairo, on Feb. 26. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images

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Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president who died last week at age 91, came of age as a young Air Force officer in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. He was a witness to Egypt’s tilt toward the Soviet Union, the Czech arms deal, the intervention in Yemen, the June 1967 defeat, and the war of attrition. Well-liked by both superiors and subordinates for his competence and hard work, Mubarak rose through the ranks and at the age of 43, he was named commander of the Air Force. The fighters and bombers under his command carried out the opening salvos of the October 1973 war that helped make the famous crossing of the Suez Canal—Egypt’s greatest modern military triumph—possible. When President Anwar Sadat sought to promote an officer from those who fought in 1973 to be his vice president, he chose Mubarak.

The Sadat era was tumultuous as well. There was the May 1971 Corrective Revolution, the opening to the Muslim Brotherhood, the bread riots of 1977, and, in quick succession, Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, Camp David, and the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. Then came the summer and autumn of fury, during which Sadat ordered the arrests of his political opponents. A few months later, Sadat was assassinated. Sitting next to him as the attack unfolded was Vice President Mubarak, who escaped with only a minor injury to his hand.

This was the history that shaped Mubarak’s worldview and laid the groundwork for what became a coda of his three decades in power: stability for the sake of development. He had seen up close how the political turbulence, change, and rapid reversals of the previous eras could render Egypt vulnerable, mostly to itself, and was thus determined to steer a middle ground between the excitement and tumult that characterized the Nasser and Sadat years in order to achieve his cherished goals.

Looking back, it is hard to deny how successful he was at both. By the time the military pushed Mubarak from office in February 2011, Egyptian life expectancy had reached developed-world levels. During his presidency, birth and infant mortality rates had dropped significantly, while childhood immunization rates for tuberculosis; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus; hepatitis B; measles; and polio were in the 96 to 98 percent range. When Mubarak took the oath of office in October 1981, they had been roughly half that. Between 1981 and 2011, Egypt’s age dependency ratio—a rough measure of the population financially dependent on others—fell by a third.

Literacy had improved markedly, but not enough, and the percentage of the population working in agriculture fell from approximately 40 to 30 percent. Although the level of industrial employment remained steady, the number of workers in the services sector increased significantly. Of course, these socioeconomic indicators are illustrative, but they and others belie the conventional view that the Mubarak era was one of stagnation and decay. That is a popular—even understandable—narrative about Egypt, especially in the years before the January 2011 uprising, but it is greatly skewed. By a variety of measures, Egyptians were collectively better off for the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. Perhaps the same progress would have happened under another Egyptian president, but there was no other, and thus there is no denying that these developments are part of Mubarak’s legacy.

During his long tenure, Mubarak is reported to have often told interlocutors that he knew Egypt better than anyone else. His unwillingness to heed suggestions that he move faster on economic reforms, lift the emergency laws, and allow more political freedoms seemed firmly rooted in Egypt’s experiences of the past: the Muslim Brotherhood challenge of the 1950s, the student movement a decade later, the regime-shaking protests of 1977, and the insurgency of the 1990s. In his view, to give in to the demands of domestic activists and well-meaning Americans would risk his related goals of stability and development.

The problem was that a policy of stability for the sake of development was not enough for millions of Egyptians. It captured no one’s imagination; perhaps that was the point after the ferment of the Nasser and Sadat years. Not everyone shared in development—Egypt’s overall socioeconomic improvements notwithstanding—and, importantly, many felt they were being left behind. After all, the development that Mubarak enabled, especially during his final years, was uneven or perceived to be uneven. It is not hard to understand why, given the proliferation of gated communities, the ubiquity of high-end cars, and all other types of conspicuous consumption among Egypt’s elite against the backdrop of a huge population that felt pauperized, forgotten, and disdained. When workers, journalists, intellectuals, students, and activists of all stripes and varieties objected, they were abused. Egyptians never lived under the same level of repression that Iraqis or Syrians experienced during the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s, but stability at all costs became an excuse for state-sponsored brutality.

As the Mubarak period proceeded, there was also a deepening arrogance of power—after all, he believed he knew best—crony capitalism, corruption, and nepotism, all symbolized in Egypt’s princeling, the president’s son Gamal Mubarak, who was grooming himself for big things. It’s not that these pathologies had not existed before, but in those fateful years before the uprising, beginning with the so-called Dream Team government charged with forging ahead with neoliberal economic reforms, these problems seemed more pronounced than ever before. Then all of the contradictions and dilemmas plaguing Egypt over many years came together in early 2011 and, like lightning in a bottle, brought hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptians into the streets to demand an end to Mubarak’s rule.

It was a stunning turn of events during that surprising season of protest. Egyptian leaders were not supposed to fall or outlive their rule—King Farouk and Gen. Mohammed Naguib being notable exceptions.

So how does one fairly evaluate Mubarak, who, whether fashionable or not to acknowledge it, was as consequential in his own ways as Nasser and Sadat before him. Like them, his legacy is decidedly mixed. Mubarak’s achievements are real and should stand for themselves, but they are nevertheless overshadowed. Ironically, his almost pathological focus on stability produced the Egypt of today—a country that has lurched from political crisis to political crisis over the last decade. Analysts and journalists have often made that case that “Mubarakism” outlasted Mubarak’s three-decade-long tenure. It’s pithy, but it’s not true. It is dead and buried like the man; in its place is something much worse.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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