By Alaa Shahine and Cam Simpson – Feb 11, 2011 11:07 AM ET
It took 18 days of pressure from Cairo protesters as the U.S. and the European Union called for change to end the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who kept peace with Israel, battled Islamic militants and preserved American interests in the Middle East.
His departure came after violence killed more than 300 people, according to the United Nations, with police sometimes firing on demonstrators and pro-Mubarak forces attacking as well. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, which holds more than 50 percent of all known oil reserves.
The replacement for Mubarak — who said just yesterday that he would stay until September elections while handing powers to his vice-president — must have democratic legitimacy, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said in a telephone interview before Mubarak said he would leave.
Egypt is now at a stage of development in which it is reasonable and expected by the population,” Brzezinski said of the need for a leader popularly elected in free and fair elections.
In its final days, Mubarak’s regime also faced tough criticism from its most powerful ally, the U.S. Since the protests began, officials in the administration of President Barack Obama have been condemning violence wielded against demonstrators, calling for a faster transition and saying emergency laws, which had been used to justify harsh security tactics, should be lifted.
Mubarak was brought down by an unexpected coalition of opposition politicians, members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and, most important, tens of thousands of young people who planned and organized the demonstrations on Facebook and Twitter.
Chief among them: Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google Inc. executive whose social media expertise helped trigger and propel the demonstrations. He was arrested and held in secret detention for more than a week as Mubarak’s government shut down the Internet and mobile services, the tools he used to help make the protests possible.
Two days after his Feb. 7 release, Ghonim told those gathered in Tahrir Square, “I’m not a hero. You’re all heroes, the martyrs who have died in the struggle are the real heroes.” Pictures of those killed were posted around the square.
Mubarak, a former air-force general who as president was commander of the largest military force in the Arab world, was the nation’s longest-serving ruler in more than 150 years. He controlled a government that was the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East for three decades, Brzezinski said.
Peace With Israel
Mubarak kept peace with Israel, with which Egypt had had formal peace for only two years when he took office, supported U.S. counterterrorism efforts, backed Iranian sanctions over its nuclear program and helped broker Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
At the same time, Mubarak, an 82-year-old with jet-black hair, controlled a regime condemned by the U.S. government for its lack of basic freedoms at home, for its widespread suppression of political opposition and for the torture of Egyptian citizens, which was often carried out with impunity, according to the State Department.
“If you are prepared to reconcile those two realities, then it seems to me that, on balance, Mubarak has been a partner and a friend to the U.S. and the region,” said former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.
Still, Miller said, the cost was steep.
‘Anger and Animosity’
“His increasing authoritarianism and repression generated enormous anger and animosity, not just towards him, but also toward the United States,” said Miller, who served as a State Department official under six U.S. secretaries of state and was a peace negotiator in the Clinton Administration. He is now a public policy scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Mubarak was propelled to power by the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, the leader who made peace with Israel two years earlier. Only Mohammed Ali, who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1849, governed longer in the past 200 years.
Miller said three decades of stability in the region for the U.S. and Israel helped Mubarak buy a pass from Washington when he failed to follow through on pledges to open the country’s political system to competition that would have posed a challenge to his own rule.
Egypt’s benchmark stock index has risen more than seven- fold in the past 10 years. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index has almost tripled in the same period. Egypt’s stock market is the second-biggest in North Africa by market value after Morocco according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Protected Ruling Elite
Since the global financial crisis, though, Egypt’s economic growth rate has dropped below the 7 percent that the government estimates is necessary to create enough jobs for a growing working-age population — such as the young people who camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Suppression of a wide array of perceived rivals under an emergency law promulgated in 1981 marked Mubarak’s reign. Some analysts and opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, said his policies protected the ruling elite while leaving the poor grappling with an inflation rate that reached more than 20 percent in 2008.
Mubarak’s governments blamed population growth and the economic mismanagement of past administrations for the poverty that plagued the nation of 80 million.
Egypt’s per-capita gross domestic product more than quadrupled from 1981 to 2009, when it stood at $6,000, lower than countries such as Namibia and Gabon, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Mubarak never put in doubt the policy of diplomatic rapprochement with Israel, though his only visit to the Jewish state was for the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
He renewed ties with Arab states, which had almost universally rejected Cairo’s separate peace accord with Israel under Sadat. They showed their anger by breaking diplomatic relations with Egypt, suspending its membership in the Arab League and moving the group’s headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.
Addressing Arab leaders in Cairo in 1996, Mubarak stressed his commitment to regional peace, which he maintained until the end of his regime.
“There isn’t among us anyone who wants to take the region back to the destruction of war or to the phase of no war and no peace,” he said. “We are sincerely determined to struggle for peace until the end.”
Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter when the U.S. helped forge the Egypt-Israel accord, said that was Mubarak’s most important legacy.
“I think avoiding war in the region is of importance to the United States,” Brzezinski said. “The moment Egypt signed a separate peace treaty with Israel the possibility of an encircling attack on Israel, like in 1973, faded.”
Mubarak also retained Egypt’s alliance with the U.S., which began with Sadat’s break with the then-Soviet Union. Egypt now receives about $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid. U.S. non-military aid last year was $250 million, according to the State Department.
Critics, including the group Human Rights Watch, said he went too far, arguing that the alleged torture of terrorism suspects created more danger than it quelled.
The government’s “foul record on torture” played an important part in fueling the anger that brought Mubarak down, said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Five Times President
She called on the new government to end torture and prosecute perpetrators.
Mubarak was elected president five times. Four were by referendum in which he was the only candidate, and one, in 2005, was an election against an array of weak candidates. Throughout his reign, he retained the state-of-emergency rules that restricted political activity and free speech.
Like Egypt’s three other presidents since the revolution of 1952, Mubarak came from the military. Almost three decades after he assumed power, that same military would announce that it recognized “the legitimacy of the people’s demands” and promise not to fire on peaceful demonstrators.
Until the crisis that began with demonstrations Jan. 25, Mubarak had never appointed a vice president or officially designated anyone as his likely successor. The rise of his son, Gamal, up the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party led Egyptians to conjecture that he would succeed his father. Both men repeatedly denied this.
His most visible political opponents were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that had renounced violence in the 1970s. Dissatisfaction among Egyptians over corruption and economic inequality fueled its growth.
In 2005, Mubarak opened presidential elections to multiple candidates. The regulations were so restrictive that no strong challengers emerged; the runner-up, lawyer Ayman Nour, won only 7 percent of the vote to Mubarak’s 88 percent. After the election, Nour was jailed for four years on fraud charges that human-rights groups say were trumped up.
In elections later in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the 454-member parliament — a surprise result that prompted a crackdown on Islamic activists and on anti-Mubarak secular politicians, judges, newspaper editors, bloggers and street demonstrators. Hundreds of Brotherhood activists were rounded up and some put on trial in closed-door military courts.
In 2007, a constitutional amendment forbade parties with religious ties, eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from fielding a presidential candidate. Rules on running as an independent were also tightened, making a Brotherhood-affiliated nominee unlikely.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Riad Hamade in Dubai at email@example.com.