The uncomplicated legacy of Hosni Mubarak
Internatio-nal media is saturated with the news of ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's death at the age of 91 and his military funeral, complete with three days of mourning and a statement from the current Egyptian presidency calling him a "military leader and a war hero". While this reaction is not surprising within the country, since Egypt happens to once again be under the grip of another autocrat—former general Abdel Fatah al-Sisi—it is a hard pill to swallow when even the BBC discusses his "complicated legacy" as a "military man but one who upheld his country's commitment to international peace," and the Independent shares an article from columnist Ahmed Aboudouh, who goes as far as to discuss Mubarak's global perception as a "ballast against erratic strongmen in Syria and Iraq, a force of secularism and a reliable Arab leader capable of deploying Egypt's weight to keep order in an ever-volatile region."
For many of us, before fading into obscurity and dying of old age, Mubarak was known mainly as the Egyptian autocrat who clung on to power for 29-odd years before becoming one of the first leaders to be deposed in 2011 by the popular uprising now known as the Arab Spring. We still remember the unprecedented scenes from Tahrir Square, where the cries of protest against corruption, crony capitalism and a viciously policed state became the stuff of legend for people across the world, who live in such "weakened democracies" and dream of seeing better days. At least 846 people died in the 18 days of protests in Egypt, but the hope for democracy that took root in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East eventually fizzled out. With the overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi through a military coup in 2013; with Yemen, Syria and Libya smouldering in the fires of conflict—yet again the battlegrounds for multiple external forces using these lands for their proxy wars at the cost of thousands of Arab lives—and with Bahrain's uprising swiftly put down with the aid of Saudi Arabian troops and martial law (followed by a government crackdown, of course)… the Arab Spring has become yet another sad example of how power, unfortunately, can end up winning over people.
And very few leaders in the Arab world can claim to have wielded this "power" for as long and as doggedly as Hosni Mubarak did. A military man to the core, as so many autocrats turn out to be, Mubarak was the commander of the Egyptian air force in the 1973 war against Israel, which was considered to be an achievement for the Egyptian military. As a result, he was appointed as vice-president to then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and became Sadat's ally in bringing about the 1979 Camp David Accords. Whilst hailed as a milestone in Israel-Palestine relations by the West, it put Egypt in the bad books of the Arab world for creating a hurried peace and denying Palestinians the right to self-determination and sovereignty over occupied lands in the West Bank and Gaza. After Sadat's assassination in 1981 and Mubarak's rise to presidency through a national referendum where he was the only candidate, he was to continue to be the US' "man in the East", especially with regard to the policy on Palestine, cementing his position as a "strongman" who would continue to be propped up as long as he remained their ally.
In return, Mubarak's loyalty was rewarded with the return of the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel had seized in 1967), but more than that, it brought in a steady stream of US military aid—by 2011, Egypt was receiving USD 1.3 billion a year. A large portion of this aid was channelled into Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980, at a time when the world turned a blind eye against the use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurds in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was an equally favoured Middle East strongman supporting the West in their fight against Islamic terrorism and Iran's axis of influence. While Mubarak took a u-turn regarding his views on Saddam after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait—he was reported to be furious because he had received a personal promise from the then Iraqi president that no such invasion would take place—he, and all concerned leaders at the time, nevertheless refused to speak out against the brutal suppression of Shiite and Kurd uprisings against Saddam's regime in 1990.
Yet throughout his rule, Mubarak was lauded by the powers that be for being a force of secularism who was taking Egypt towards a new direction. It is true that he was extremely effective in suppressing "terrorism", regardless of whether these terrorists were members of extremist insurgency groups such as al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, or of political parties backed by the Islamist transnational organisation Muslim Brotherhood, or simply opponents of the regime who had criticised the continued clampdown on human rights. Immediately after accepting the presidency, he imposed a state of emergency to prevent what he termed "civil conflict", which stayed in place throughout the entirety of his rule. In order to bring the stability that he was so praised for, he created the notorious State Security Investigations Agency (SSIS) and brought into place "a shadow judicial system", as described by Amnesty International, that allowed arbitrary detentions without trial, forced disappearances and mass torture. When Egypt's state security buildings were stormed in 2011 during the Arab Spring, the BBC reported the discovery of underground torture cells and secret surveillance files (most of which were quickly destroyed by the military) that showed that the regime was keeping tabs not just on extremists and political opponents, but on teachers, judges and senior civil servants as well. After Mubarak's fall in 2011, ex-prisoners detained under his emergency laws spoke of being tortured with electric shocks, hung from steel poles, raped, beaten, flogged and burnt with cigarettes, although they also apparently received medical care to avoid custodial deaths.
But it wasn't just the notorious police state that eventually led to Mubarak's downfall; accusations of corruption and crony capitalism played a huge role in his demise as well. According to a report by the Guardian, in 2010, 70,000 Egyptians had net assets of more than USD five million each, while at least half of Egypt lived on USD 1.50 a day. His two sons were a bit too successful in business, and the Mubarak family fortune was reported to be as much as GBP 50 billion. Many analysts believe that this massive wealth is what eventually led to his downfall—no Egyptian leader had ever existed without the blessings of the armed forces, but their share of the wealth was slowly being undermined by Mubarak's privatisation and the rise of other elites.
In 2012, Mubarak was wheeled into court on a hospital gurney and sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to murder protestors, and in 2015, Mubarak and his sons were also convicted for embezzling public funds, part of a long list of accusations of corruption. However, in 2017, he was acquitted of conspiracy to kill protestors. After the 2013 military coup and Sisi's assumption of power, there are fears that the new regime is simply a repackaging of the old one—with Mubarak-era figures being cleared of charges, the security services wielding unbridled power yet again and the laws limiting political and media freedoms back in place.
The current state of events—coupled with the fact that Mubarak was ultimately never punished for the human rights violations perpetrated during his time and is now receiving praise from certain quarters for his efforts for "international peace and secularism"—is making a mockery of the Arab Spring and the people who risked and lost their lives for democracy. Mubarak didn't deserve a war-hero funeral, he deserved to have answered for his crimes and been brought to justice.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.