Egyptian president overthrown in the Arab Spring uprisings

Born: May 4, 1928;

Died: February 25, 2020.

HOSNI Mubarak, who has died aged 91, was a former fighter pilot and politician who ruled Egypt for 30 years behind the merest veneer of democracy: elections, for example, in which he would win more than 90 per cent of the vote. The people of Egypt did eventually get their say, however, when the dictator was forced to resign in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

But it was not just the rigged elections that kept Mubarak in power for so long. For many years he had the tolerance and support of the United States who saw him as a stable presence in an unpredictable part of the world. He also had the backing of the Egyptian military and was prepared to oppress dissent violently. The enrichment of his friends and allies helped too – Egypt was never as corrupt as it was under Mubarak.

The son of a government official, Mubarak had risen to power through the ranks of the air force and became president after one of the acts of violence that were common at the top of Egyptian society. Mubarak himself was the target of many assassination attempts but it was when president Anwar Sadat was killed by Muslim extremists in 1981 that he got his chance. Mubarak, then vice-president, was sitting next to Sadat when the assassins struck but escaped with a minor injury to his hand. Seven days later, he was president.

The 30 years that followed led to mixed fortunes for Egypt and its people. Initially, Mubarak looked like a reformist, investing in the infrastructure of the country and freeing thousands of political prisoners. In his later years too, he was given credit for economic reforms that raised growth and encouraged investment, and in international relations, he guided Egypt back into the mainstream and came to be seen as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

However, despite pressure from the US, elections under Mubarak were never fair. The opposition parties were spied on and dissidents rounded up. The inequalities in Egyptian society – which had always been huge – also grew ever larger. As the bank accounts of the leadership, including the president, swelled, half the country was living on around a dollar a day.

Mubarak himself had come from a relatively humble background. He was born into a lower middle-class family in the village of Kafr el-Moseilha in the northern province of Menoufia, where his father worked as an inspector with the Ministry of Justice. The young Mubarak studied at the national military academy where he was an exemplary pupil.

He joined the air force in 1950 and spent some time training in the Soviet Union before rising through the ranks as a fighter pilot and instructor. In 1967 he was appointed commander of the Air Force Academy and six years later played a major role in Egypt’s surprise 1973 attack on the Israeli forces occupying the disputed Sinai Peninsula. Ultimately, the attempt to take back Sinai failed, but it did the world of good for Mubarak’s career and boosted Sadat’s popularity.

By the time of the peace negotiations over Sinai, which led to the treaty of 1979, Mubarak was one of Sadat’s most trusted lieutenants and became his vice-president in 1975 before being elevated – suddenly and violently – to the top job in 1981 when Sadat was assassinated. Sadat and Mubarak had been attending a military parade when Islamic fundamentalists attacked Sadat’s entourage with grenades and AK-47s. The president and 10 others were killed.

Islamic militancy was to remain a problem for Mubarak throughout his presidency. and combatting it was often the excuse he used for restricting human rights in the country. He was also intolerant of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been illegal since the 1950s but tried to work within the political system. By the time of the elections in 2000, it had emerged as the largest opposition group in the parliament.

In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood was also to play a role in Mubarak’s downfall, with a former leader of the organisation, Mohammed Morsi, being elected to succeed him after the uprising of the Arab Spring. Initially, as the movement gathered momentum and support in early 2011, Mubarak sought to mollify the protestors by promising constitutional reform, but the mass protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities intensified and Mubarak resigned.

Within weeks he was under arrest, and a few months later he was in court charged with corruption and the deaths of anti-government protesters. But it was a long and controversial process. Initially, he was found guilty of complicity in the killing of the protesters but the conviction was later overturned and he was freed in 2017.

Mubarak always insisted he had never been ambitious and affected to live in a modest house in Cairo, although in 2012 it was reported that Switzerland had frozen $340 million in bank accounts belonging to the Mubarak family. In 2018 his sons were arrested for alleged stockmarket manipulation but were acquitted just days before his death. They survive Mubarak along with his wife Suzanne.