Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egyptian Pharaoh Dethroned, What Next For Egypt?

Hosni Mubarak: Egyptian 'pharaoh' dethroned amid gunfire and blood

Critics said the president would never leave voluntarily but few political rights and falling prosperity forced an end.

    Husni Mubarak

    Hosni Mubarak's presidency was born amid gunfire and bloodshed and ended in an equally dramatic fashion. As vice-president, Mubarak was sitting next to Anwar Sadat on 6 October 1981 at an army parade in the Cairo district of Nasser City when soldiers with Islamist sympathies turned on their leader, pouring automatic weapons fire into the reviewing stand. Sadat was killed outright. Mubarak narrowly escaped. Eight days later, he was sworn in as Egypt's third president.

    That Mubarak should be ejected from the job he has held for nearly 30 years is, with hindsight, hardly a surprise. It had become clear to Egyptians and the world in recent years that even at the age of 82 he regarded the presidency as his by right, hence his nickname of "pharaoh" – and that he would not quit voluntarily. As the crisis overwhelmed him, he said he had had no intention of standing again in September. Few believed him. Others assumed he planned instead to install his second son, Gamal, in a dynastic succession.

    Mubarak's attitude to his people was by turns paternalistic, aloof and repressive. Though he claimed to love his fellow Egyptians, he did not trust them, maintaining the harsh emergency laws imposed after Sadat's assassination throughout his reign. Leading an unswervingly secular, pro-western regime, he demonised even moderate Islamist parties and made of the Muslim Brotherhood a bogeyman with which to scare the Americans.

    Yet, in rare interviews he implied that he believed he held some sort of divine mandate, that he ruled through and by God's will. After he survived an attempt on his life by Gema'a Islamiya (Muslim Group) terrorists in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in June 1995, one of up to eight attempted assassinations over 30 years, he returned to Cairo proclaiming that God had saved him through an act of divine providence, as in 1981.

    Imperious, abstemious (he does not smoke or drink), and intensely private, he suggested Egyptians were lucky to have him in charge. Without him, he said repeatedly, there would be only chaos. And this claim to ensure stability was, in truth, his entire electoral manifesto.

    Yet mixed up with his vague sense of God-given power and obligation was a strong strand of regal hubris, bordering on self pity. "I've only had three months' holiday in my 56-year career," he told a television interviewer in 2005. "I've been doing hard labour for 56 years and it's all for Egypt." He never cried, he said, he never despaired, and he never allowed himself to be provoked. Influenced perhaps by his military background, he clearly saw such emotional repression as a virtue.

    Speaking this week, Mubarak returned to his favourite theme of self-sacrifice. As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded he follow Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, he insisted he would serve Egypt until his last breath. "This dear nation ... is where I lived, I fought for it, and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me like it did others." Talking to ABC television last week on Thursday,he repeated his life-long, heart-felt mantra: that, if he left, chaos would descend.

    For all his vanities and inadequacies, Mubarak's early achievements were significant. To the turmoil that followed Sadat's death, he brought a steady hand and, at a moment of great peril, held the nation together. Confronting the ostracism of Egypt by Arab and Muslim countries following Sadat's 1979 peace treaty with Israel (the Arab League decamped from Cairo to Tunis in disgust), he worked assiduously to restore relations, finally succeeding by 1989 with all but the rejectionist leaders of Tehran.

    In 1990-91, he opted to support the American-led Operation Desert Storm to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, thereby cementing Egypt's new relationship with Washington and obtaining in return a $20bn write-off in debt. And faced by an upsurge in destabilising, jihadi violence in the 1990s, whose targets included Egypt's vital tourist trade, he fought back with calculated ferocity at a time when the US and Britain were still living in blissful ignorance of the gathering Islamist storm.

    Most important of all, at least from the western point of view, Mubarak maintained the peace, albeit a cold peace, with Israel and he fortified the US alliance. There was no repeat of the 1973 war with Israel, in which Mubarak, himself a former Soviet-trained fighter pilot, had distinguished himself as air force commander. There was no question of Egypt slipping back into Moscow's embrace, as in the time of Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

    Mubarak was, by training, a stolid soldier and by instinct, a simple nationalist. Not for him Nasser's pan-Arabist romanticism. Not for him the showy extravagance of Sadat. In charisma, he was wholly lacking. Imagination was not his strong suit. His only political agenda was to maintain calm and maintain power. And that made him a reliable if limited ally.

    Mubarak received billions in American military aid, equipping and rewarding the army and its commanders, on whom his power ultimately rested. In recent years he proved a willing partner in Washington's endless search for an Israel-Palestine settlement. But for many Palestinians, and particularly Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, his pro-American stance was a galling betrayal. When Israel attacked Gaza in 2008-9, for example, he allowed Israeli bombers to over-fly Egyptian territory.

    In terms of the broader region, Mubarak maintained close ties in later years with fellow Sunni Muslim rulers in the Gulf and, despite attempts at reconciliation, remained strongly at odds with Iran over its nuclear programme and its involvement in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. As the Arab world's most populous and influential country, Egypt under Mubarak saw itself as a natural leader in the face of Tehran's expanding ambitions. In this it was egged on by the US.

    Now, with Mubarak gone, the US and Israel face a more uncertain strategic reality, and not just in regard to Iran. Whoever leads Egypt in the longer term is unlikely to be as biddable as his fallen predecessor.Read more.

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