Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Egypt's Last Pharaoh? The Rise and Fall of Hosni Mubarak

By the time he finally resigned Friday, Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak had ruled Egypt longer than anyone since Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Albanian-born viceroy of the Ottoman Empire credited with bringing Egypt into the modern age. Mubarak was a son of the soil, born 82 years ago on the Nile delta, but in his three decades as its president, the Land of the Pharaohs surrendered its position as leader of the contemporary Arab world. Egypt remained by far the most populous Arab nation, but its historic power to inspire the masses was crimped, beaten and subdued along with the citizens who restored it in the space of a fortnight, simply by assembling, day after day, and chanting for him to leave.

When he did, a day late, the announcement fell to the first vice president Mubarak found the need to appoint in the last 30 years, the indefatigable spymaster Omar Suleiman, a figure who would be right at home on the 1950's era black-and-white movies that flicker on the television sets in every Cairo coffee shop and kiosk, to the remembered glory of Egyptian cinema. At once terse and lugubrious, the former general delivered his walk-off line like the undertaker he likely thought he had become: "May God help everybody."

With that, power reverted to the Egyptian military from which Mubarak emerged, both stolid and a little dashing, 36 years ago. He had been a command hero of the 1973 war against Israel when he shed the epaulets of Air Chief Marshal to serve as vice president to Anwar Sadat. And when Sadat was assassinated by Islamist officers at a military parade, the world discovered the new president of Egypt was a square-jawed, powerfully built figure whose imposition of Emergency Rule seemed justified.

But as the years passed and self-regard accumulated, Mubarak assumed a still grander role: The Indispensable Man. It wasn't only a matter of embodying a nation, though that was the fundament of the electoral arrangement. For the first 18 years, Mubarak was returned to office not by elections — no other candidate was allowed — but by referenda that never showed him with less than 94%. Let Egyptians think what they wanted privately, more and more of what legitimacy the ra'is (Arabic for "chieftain") could claim originated beyond Egypt's borders. Mubarak upheld the 1979 treaty with Israel that Sadat had boldly signed, and which led to his death. The decision assured more than $1 billion in aid per year from Washington, but also the enmity of an Arab world that moved the Arab League headquarters out of Cairo and down the Mediterranean coast to Tunis.

In time the League moved back to Cairo, and its members more toward Egypt's position, in 2002 even putting forward its own peace plan. But in a Middle East where autocrats have remained in place thanks in no small part to Western powers seeking the kind of assurance colonial masters once sought from tribal chiefs, Mubarak was at the head of the class. He cut a dapper figure on the red carpets of the White House, where he received the welcomes of five presidents, and played the pivot in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, both of which fret at his departure. The strategic position Egypt long occupied on the map, Mubarak assumed in the cosmology of strongmen who Washington remonstrated quietly but counted as reliable. Perhaps Leon Panetta was only passing on what was in the air in Cairo Thursday, but it was fitting that word Mubarak's departure was imminent came from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Not that all of this came out of the blue. Tunisia's revolution was clearly the spark, but Egyptians have been stewing for so long, their uprising was foreshadowed by the titles of books years in the making and years in print: Egypt on the Brink; Egypt After Mubarak; Egypt: The Moment of Change; Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution. The stranglehold of Mubarak's regime gripped not only politics — putting a boot heel on the formation of any challenge to the National Democratic Party, jailing a presidential challenger on trumped up charges — but also the economy. In 30 years in power, more than two generations could study as long as they wanted, but still hope to find no meaningful work absent some connection to the regime. Such were the legions of unemployed university graduates that the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation started a program to settle them on reclaimed desert along the Nile delta. It was called the "Mubarak Project."

Oblivious is a word.

"Look," Mubarak told Charlie Rose a couple of years ago, raising an arm from the gold-gilt armchair to shake a finger. "Your concept of human rights is a merely political one. Human rights are not only political."

The president then enumerated the areas protesters listed to reporters in Tahrir Square for 18 days. "You have social rights," he said. "You have the right to education. You have the right to health. You have the right to a job. There are many other rights, and we are doing well on these fronts."

"But we are not absolutely perfect," Mubarak allowed. "Nobody's perfect."

Nor are revolutions. As this one enters its celebratory phase, some observers are dismayed by the faith demonstrators have placed in Egypt's military.

"Communique No. 1, right? This is not how a revolution begins," said Tzvi Mezal, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, while awaiting Mubarak's address to the nation Thursday night. The incongruity — Friday brought Communique No. 2 from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was striking enough. "Everyone thinks the army is going to save the day. Mubarak is also the army."

Still it was army officers who chucked out Egypt's last monarch in 1952, peaceably escorting Farouk I to Alexandria and putting him on a boat. (The mechanics of that transition involved abdication to his infant son.) And the throngs that brought down the man Egyptians derisively called "Pharaoh" were, on Friday night, raising soldiers aloft.