The Accidental Dictator
Imagine for a moment that President George Bush (the first) had suddenly died in office, leaving Dan Quayle—a national punch line who nobody thought would ever wield any real power—as president of the United States. Then imagine that nearly three decades later, that same perceived lightweight was still running the country; that an entire generation of Americans had never known any other leader; that he and Marilyn Quayle were busily renaming public buildings, bridges, and libraries after themselves; and that president-for-life Quayle was seemingly grooming one of his children to continue the family business of running the country.
If that seems far-fetched, it’s not too far from the reality that Egyptians had been living through for nearly three decades. Put simply: Hosni Mubarak’s era as Egypt’s modern-day pharaoh was never supposed to happen. One of the core ironies of Mubarak’s twenty-nine-year death grip on Egypt was that he stumbled into what was probably the most important and influential job in the modern Middle East entirely by accident.
It’s a reality that became abundantly clear from the very beginning of the eighteen-day uprising in the winter of 2011 that finally toppled Mubarak. Once protesters succeeded in shattering the police state that had kept him in power, it became immediately clear that there really was no Plan B. Mubarak’s regime, in its final days, fell back on a parade of antiquated, insincere rhetoric, uninspired and tone-deaf concessions, and finally, one last effort at vicious violence in a desperate attempt to retain control.
It all served to underscore that hiding behind the truncheons and tear gas of the Central Security riot police was an intellectually bankrupt and cynical blank space of a regime. That’s why there was a distinct undercurrent of bitterness and shame mixed in with the euphoria and the resurgent sense of empowerment coursing through the Cairo streets that February, when Mubarak meekly left the stage.
The sentiment was something approaching: “I can’t believe we let these guys run our lives for decades.”
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Mohammed Hosni Mubarak rose to power as much because of what he wasn’t as for any particular gifts he possessed. Longtime observers describe him as a sort of Middle Eastern dictatorial Forrest Gump, constantly advancing through a series of happy accidents—being in the right place at the right time.
President Anwar Sadat, who began his reign in 1970, promoted Mubarak from among the ranks of his senior generals due, as much as anything, to his deficiencies. He wasn’t regarded as ambitious or particularly intelligent. He wasn’t a plotter or a politician. In essence, he wasn’t a threat. In an interview early in his reign, Mubarak once quipped that his highest professional ambition had been to one day serve as Egypt’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.
“He was just the guy in the back of the photo behind Anwar Sadat that we never thought would be president,” said Hisham Kassem, a longtime Egyptian human rights activist and independent publisher. “Basically Sadat wanted somebody to secure the loyalty of the military. He just wanted one of the top generals. Mubarak was the least charismatic and the least interested in politics. So it went to him. Believe me, nobody thought he was going to stick around for thirty years.”
Born into a middle-class family (his father was a mid-level Ministry of Justice official) in rural Menoufeya Province on May 4, 1928, young Mubarak had entered the military straight out of high school, and rose through the ranks of the Air Force as a fighter pilot and aviation instructor, eventually becoming commander of the Egyptian Air Force.
His defining moment came in October 1973 when Sadat launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal and into the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied since 1967’s Six-Day War.
The conflict ended in a military stalemate. By the time a ceasefire was declared, the Israeli forces had recovered from their initial shock and were starting to seize the momentum and advance on Cairo. But psychologically and strategically it was a massive victory for Sadat. The sight of Egyptian troops bravely crossing to the east bank of the canal in the teeth of entrenched Israeli Bar Lev Line helped exorcize the deep emotional traumas of the Six-Day War, when Israel thoroughly trounced multiple Arab armies and permanently stained the legacy of Sadat’s predecessor, the iconic Gamal Abdel Nasser. Strategically, the conflict frightened Israel enough that Sadat was later able to negotiate with the Jewish state from a position of strength.
Mubarak came out of the 1973 conflict a war hero, although there were, in later years, allegations that his actual strategic role in the conflict was retroactively exaggerated. “There were ten or twelve other [military commanders] who played a larger role,” said Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political science professor who emerged in Mubarak’s final years in power as a prominent regime critic. Whatever the truth, Sadat packaged his air force commander as one of the faces of victory and promoted him to vice president in 1975.
Sadat and his protégé were a study in contrasts. Sadat was wily, bold, vain, and mercurial—prone to emotional instability and temper tantrums, but also undeniably clever. Mubarak was none of the above.
For several years, Mubarak lurked in the shadows behind the charismatic Sadat, a vaguely recognizable face standing behind the president as he delivered a speech or met with foreign dignitaries. He was handsome in a stocky, square-jawed sort of way, looked good in a suit, and seemed to be one of the few who were privy to Sadat’s inner counsels. But beyond that he didn’t make much of an impression on either the local or international stage. There’s a common story (possibly apocryphal) that when Henry Kissinger first met Mubarak with Sadat, he thought Mubarak was some sort of junior aid, not the country’s vice president. Even within local military circles and in the public eye, he was dwarfed by more charismatic figures such as powerful defense minister Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala.
On October 6, 1981, Sadat was killed by an Islamist cell inside his own army, ironically during a parade to commemorate his 1973 military victory. The preceding years had seen Sadat demonstrate his trademark tendency for both bold unilateral moves and thin-skinned impetuousness. In the wake of the 1973 war, Sadat stunned the nation and the region by suddenly launching open peace negotiations with Israel. His landmark decision to visit Jerusalem on November 20, 1977, led to the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and to Egypt’s near-total isolation from the rest of the Arab World.
Sadat’s gambit placed Egypt firmly in the American camp during the height of the Cold War, ensuring an annual flow of billions in U.S. aid that continue to this day. But it also inflamed local hostility toward Israel and made Egypt a regional pariah. In 1979, the Arab League expelled Egypt and moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. While Sadat was hailed internationally as a bold statesman, he was regarded in the Arab world as having repudiated Nasser’s vision of Arab nationalism and cut a deal to place Egypt’s interests above those of the wider Arab community.
Domestically, he became increasingly oppressive and erratic in response to his critics; in September 1981, he launched a massive internal crackdown, rounding up and imprisoning more than fifteen hundred perceived dissidents. The victims included not just militant Islamists—regarded as the primary threat—but intellectuals and activists of all ideological stripes. Even the Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III was placed under house arrest in a monastery, and dozens of priests were arrested.
But Sadat’s crackdown missed a jihadi cell within his own army led by Lt. Khaled Islambouli. When the assassins struck, Mubarak was standing right next to Sadat. Despite the presidential reviewing stand being peppered by bullets and grenades, Mubarak miraculously managed to escape with just a minor hand injury. It’s an enduring testament to Mubarak’s lack of regard by the nation that there was never any serious speculation that he had been in on the plot. Despite being the most obvious beneficiary of Sadat’s assassination, many Egyptians simply refused to believe he was clever or ambitious enough to pull off—or even conceive of—a coup.
In the wake of Sadat’s assassination, there was no guarantee that Mubarak would automatically ascend to the presidency. A handful of senior military leaders could have laid claim to the throne, particularly the aforementioned Defense Minister Abu Ghazala, but also senior general Saad Mamoun and Kamal Hassan Ali, the Foreign Minister and former head of intelligence.
Kassem, the independent publisher, calls it yet another happy accident that smoothed Mubarak’s path into the presidential palace. If Sadat had died of a heart attack or in a plane crash, he posits, the Mubarak era never would have started in the first place.
“Abu Ghazala had a towering presence. He was much more popular and publicly known than Mubarak,” Kassem said. “I think he would have succeeded Sadat if only Sadat hadn’t been killed in a military parade. That’s what made Abu Ghazala’s ascension politically impossible. The conspiracy theory would have prevailed that Abu Ghazala killed Sadat.”
Instead, a slightly stunned nation suddenly found itself under the leadership of a lightly regarded nonentity. But despite being widely perceived as not really up to the job, Mubarak entered the presidency on a moderate wave of public goodwill. Once again, he benefited from what he was not. Sadat groomed and elevated Mubarak because he wasn’t as charismatic and ambitious as some of the military peers; Egyptians cautiously embraced him, at first, purely because he wasn’t Sadat.
Life under Anwar Sadat was an exhausting roller-coaster ride for many. He launched bold initiatives, switched camps between the United States and Soviet Union on a whim, responded harshly to almost any sort of criticism, restructured the economy away from Nasser’s socialist model, and dragged the country into sometimes unpopular directions. Mubarak was stolid, cautious, and a little unimaginative—qualities that made him a much-needed calming influence in those early years. He seemed disciplined, hardworking, and sincere—the Good Cop to Sadat’s unstable and irrational Bad Cop.
“Mostly, the people were just happy that Sadat was gone. Either way, the general feeling was that [Mubarak] wouldn’t last long,” said Nafaa.
“He was all right at the beginning. People felt he was cautious and trying to move the country forward,” said Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who later emerged as one of Mubarak’s most high-profile critics. At the time of Mubarak’s ascension, ElBaradei had just left the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and was in New York beginning what would become a thirty-year career with the United Nations. Decades later, he would meet Mubarak several times as head of the IAEA. ElBaradei said he found President Mubarak “extremely friendly and informal” but felt that “[h]e had no sense of a grand vision or imagination.”
In typical Egyptian fashion the Mubarak jokes started immediately. Dark humor is one of the defining Egyptian characteristics and nobody is spared. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, often told me that Nasser would deploy intelligence officers in coffee shops across the country just to monitor the jokes being swapped over tea and shisha pipes. Nasser-era jokes typically centered on the brutal way his internal security forces dealt with dissidents. Sadat was subjected to an endless stream of jokes about his long-rumored passion for hashish and about how Kissinger had repeatedly outsmarted him during the Nixon years.
In Mubarak’s case, most of the jokes revolved around his perceived lack of intelligence. He was instantly dubbed La Vache Qui Rit or “The Laughing Cow,” after a popular brand of French packaged cheese available in every market.
Here’s an example of an early-period Mubarak joke:
The new president conducts an official visit to a prototype Ministry of Agriculture cattle ranch that breeds livestock from around the world.
The director takes him around and shows him the first animal, “This is a Friesian from Holland, Mr. President,” then the second, “This is an angus steer from America,” then the third, “This is a water buffalo from India,” and so on … Somewhere along the tour, Mubarak stops and points asking, “And what is this one?” The guide answers sheepishly, “This is a mirror, Mr. President.”
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Despite such inauspicious beginnings, Mubarak actually seemed to start off his reign on the right foot. He immediately released most of the detainees jailed in Sadat’s final tantrum-fueled crackdowns. He pledged not to stay more than two presidential terms. He hosted a high-profile conference of prominent economists in an effort to design a new economic vision for the country going forward. And he, memorably, launched an anticorruption campaign, jailing several prominent regime-connected businessmen—including Alexandria tycoon Rashad Osman and Sadat’s own brother Esmat. In retrospect, that seems likely to have been a more cynical ploy to clear out Sadat’s power brokers, and to make way for his own cadre. But at the time, many Egyptians wanted to believe he was sincere.
“Of course like any new leader, there was wishful thinking,” said Wael Khalil, a longtime socialist activist and blogger who was one of the quiet architects of Egypt’s revolution. Khalil (no relation to the author) was in high school when Mubarak assumed the presidency. “You didn’t have any say anyway, so you can only hope that he’s honest.”
In a defining moment of his early years (one that drips with irony in retrospect), Mubarak made a public speech announcing, “The death shroud doesn’t have pockets.” Translation: You can’t take it with you.
Domestically, Mubarak faced immediate problems, with the ongoing threat of militant Islamist groups and with his country’s crumbling infrastructure. The Islamists were dealt with through a combination of an ongoing (and generally popular) security crackdown that drove them out of the capital and into the rural south, and by continuing Sadat’s policy of quietly encouraging radical youth to seek their jihadist dreams in Afghanistan. The infrastructure issues were partially handled through the now-blossoming post–Camp David relationship with the United States. In one case, a survey of the Cairo sewer system revealed that the capital was just a few years away from being knee-deep in sewage. A multimillion-dollar U.S. initiative completely remade the Cairo sewage network, allowing Mubarak to demonstrate to his people the immediate “peace dividend” of the Camp David accords.
Much of Mubarak’s foreign policy centered on cementing the ties Sadat had built with Washington. This was the beginning of what would be a decades-long relationship that saw Egypt’s security forces and military become deeply intertwined with their U.S. counterparts. American military hardware and aid began flowing into Cairo and generations of police and army officers began receiving advanced training in the United States. The largesse would continue as long as Mubarak kept to the terms of Camp David and controlled his people’s dissatisfaction over the plight of the Palestinians.
“He really threw himself in the lap of the Americans, far more than Sadat,” said Kassem. “He knew that the best guarantee for the regime was that the Americans were satisfied, and he really strengthened his relations with the CIA and the Pentagon. These were his strategic relations—not the Congress or the White House because these things come and go.”
The deepening dependence on Washington—and the significant parallel costs to Egypt’s regional prestige in the Arab world, stirred up limited (and easily controlled) domestic opposition. Most of the criticism at this point was about Mubarak’s dependency on (and perceived subservience to) the United States and its interests.
By the end of the 1980s, Mubarak had largely succeeded in entrenching his position. Abu Ghazala, his most powerful potential rival, was ousted from the defense ministry in 1989, ending the possibility of serious challenges from within the regime. Externally, 1989 also marked the year when the Arab League finally “forgave” Egypt for its Camp David betrayal, re-admitting the country to its ranks, and relocated its headquarters back to its traditional home in Cairo.
Mubarak’s second defining moment as president came ten years into his reign when a dispute over shared oil fields led Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to invade and occupy the tiny Arabian Gulf monarchy of Kuwait. From the very start of the dispute, Egypt was an enthusiastic partner in U.S. President George Bush’s campaign to oust Hussein from Kuwait. Mubarak’s support helped provide regional legitimacy and bring other Arab nations on board, and forty-five-thousand Egyptian troops played an active role in the ensuing Gulf War.
Mubarak’s vocal support for the U.S. campaign only deepened the local perception of him among opposition circles as an American puppet. But there were probably deeper and more complicated reasons at work as well. Cairo and Baghdad have jostled for centuries over cultural and political dominance of the Arab world—a historic rivalry that may have played into Mubarak’s eagerness to see the ascendant and aggressive Hussein weakened.
There was also a significant financial incentive at play. Egypt had been struggling under crippling debt to the IMF and major western powers; during the late 1980s the country was at serious risk of defaulting on billions of dollars in loans. In 1990–1991, Egypt’s fiscal deficit was running at 20 percent of GDP, inflation was soaring, and foreign-debt service was consuming fifty cents of every dollar received. That grim economic picture changed immediately after the first Persian Gulf War. As a reward for Mubarak’s participation in the anti-Saddam coalition, America, the Gulf States, and Europe collectively forgave Egypt about $20 billion-worth of debt and rescheduled a nearly equal amount. The end result was a new financial lease on life for Mubarak’s government, and a suddenly rosy economic picture.
These were the Golden Years for Mubarak. His National Democratic Party (NDP) had a firm grip on the executive and legislative branches of government. The judicial branch remained a bit of an enduring thorn in the government’s side, with Egypt’s judges proving remarkably resistant to co-option; but it rarely amounted to more than an annoyance. A small handful of toothless opposition parties were permitted, mainly to provide democratic window dressing. They could even produce their own opposition newspapers, where they could criticize government corruption and embarrass ministers—as long as they never mentioned the name “Mubarak” in anything less than respectful terms. The so-called Emergency Laws, imposed by Sadat, that granted sweeping powers of arrest and detention—and which would come to play a significant role in Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—were repeatedly renewed by the rubber-stamp parliament.
Mubarak was re-elected via heavily stage-managed national referendums in 1987 and 1993. Suddenly, against all odds, the Laughing Cow was in the clear and fully in control.
Copyright © 2011 by Ashraf Khalil