February 28, 2020

The Two Faces of Pharaoh


Hosni Mubarak was an autocratic ruler, under whom radical opposition – especially Islamic – was not tolerated. But his repressive rule was a modest affair compared to that of other Arab leaders, and his maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel delivered real benefits to ordinary Egyptians.

JERUSALEM – The Roman historian Sallust remarked that the way states are established determines how they are ruled. This dictum can be applied to individual rulers as well. Moreover, in many cases, the way a ruler’s power ends determines how his rule will be remembered.

This seems to be the case with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in the wake of a massive popular uprising against his rule, which was characterized as authoritarian, oppressive, corrupt, and nepotistic.

To be sure, Mubarak was an autocratic ruler, under whom radical opposition – especially Islamic – was not tolerated. Elections were shams, a hierarchical form of government controlled the population through a plethora of secret services (“the Mukhabarat state”), and the system with which he was identified was anything but free.

But, compared to the brutal dictatorships of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, or Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi – as well as the theocratic despotism of Saudi Arabia – Mubarak’s autocracy was a mild affair. Opposition leaders were harassed and occasionally jailed, but were not summarily executed, as in Syria or Iraq. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, banned as a political organization, was allowed to develop its social and cultural networks, which explains its phenomenal success in the 2012 free parliamentary elections, as well as its victory in the presidential contest that year.

If given a choice, most Arabs would prefer to live under Mubarak than under Saddam or Assad. And, when the chips were down (and after an initial violent response to the unexpected wave of demonstrations), Mubarak preferred to resign than to shoot at his own people. Saddam or Qaddafi had no qualms in that regard; nor does Assad.

Beyond that, Mubarak – who came to power after an Islamist terrorist assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat – gave his people 30 years of peace. His strategic decision to maintain Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel – which extricated Egypt from a state of war with Israel that had impoverished the country for decades and led to one defeat after another – was not an easy one. And it was not made easier by harsh and sometimes provocative steps by right-wing Israeli governments vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

To maintain peace with Israel in the face of its two wars in Lebanon and its brutal campaign against Hamas in Gaza in 2008 called for courageous resolution, especially as most opposition groups in Egypt – from left-wing Nasserist nationalists to the Muslim Brotherhood – always opposed the peace treaty.

For Mubarak, the supreme imperative of not plunging Egypt into war was determined not only by the need to maintain its financial lifeline to the United States, but also from a deep understanding of what his country’s priorities were. Past Egyptian leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser, above all – had twice led the country not only to defeats by Israel, but also into a nasty civil war in Yemen.

Though he never said so publicly, Mubarak’s motto was: “Never again,” or, in Sadat’s language in his address to the Knesset in Jerusalem: “No to war, no to violence, no to hatred.” This part of Mubarak’s legacy should not be overlooked or forgotten.

The Thirty Years’ Peace with Israel gave Egypt the chance for economic growth and development. Egypt did not overcome its systemic poverty, but a large segment of Egyptian society gained moderate middle-class affluence. Anyone visiting Cairo could see the difference that peace made to the daily lives of millions of Egyptians: their scions filled Tahrir Square in 2011 with their good English, stylish jeans, mobile phones, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was they, not the fellahin (peasants) of the Nile Valley and Delta, who brought down Mubarak.

But this relative prosperity had its darker side: cronyism, massive corruption, a fawning and obsequious political culture, and a deeply unequal distribution of wealth and privilege. While Mubarak’s style in the last years of his regime appeared increasingly personal and dynastic, at its root it epitomized the role that the army has played in Egyptian politics since its coup in 1952.

It was the army that saved Egypt from a combination of internal strife and religious fanaticism, which was why the Saudis for years tried to undermine military rule in Egypt. The army’s takeover also followed something of a tradition in which the military is the legitimate bearer of political power in Arab (and many other Muslim) countries.

This was accompanied by making the top military not only powerful, but also immensely rich, which was a major source of widespread animus against the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which came to the fore after cooperating with the demonstrators in ousting Mubarak. By throwing Mubarak overboard, the generals hoped to maintain military control of Egyptian society. Mubarak may have been Pharaoh, but, at the end of the day, he was merely the top of the pyramid of military rule.

The country’s historical dilemmas did not go away with Mubarak’s fall. The multitudes of young, well-spoken, and educated demonstrators featured on CNN and Al Jazeera in 2011 are a small segment of the country’s 100 million people. Most Egyptians don’t have Facebook accounts – or reliable access to electricity and clean drinking water. Given the opportunity, most of them voted in 2012 for Islamic fundamentalists – or for a Mubarak-like regime promising a return to the old order – rather than for the middle-class liberal demonstrators.

Democracy needs democrats. Egypt still lacks them in sufficient numbers. Mubarak’s fate, and the political turmoil that followed his demise, reflects that deeper tragedy of Egyptian society.

Shlomo Avineri, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, served as Director-General of Israel’s foreign ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He is the author of, among others, Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State and Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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