Reports this morning say that Hosni Mubarak, the 85-year-old former Egyptian president who has been detained in a variety of prisons and hospitals since he was toppled from power in February 2011, may soon be released. “All we have left is a simple administrative procedure that should take no more than 48 hours,” Mubarak’s lawyer Fareed El-Deeb told Reuters. “He should be freed by the end of the week.” If he is released, it means that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s action last month deposing President Mohamed Morsi is not a continuation of the revolution that threw Mubarak into jail, but a repudiation of it. And that may spell yet further trouble for Egypt.
In light of what’s come to pass in Egypt since Mubarak’s forced exit from the presidential palace two and a half years ago, it’s worth reconsidering his 30-year legacy. In power, Mubarak was derided as stolid and mediocre, but there’s no way to look back and not admit that he brought stability to a country where political dynamism tragically means chaos and conflict. Labeled as a tyrant and murderer when he was put in the stocks, Mubarak must now be seen in comparison with an Egyptian army chief who has killed nearly 1,000 in the last 40 days. From this perspective, Mubarak looks like a gentle Arab dictator.
Indeed, reviewing the Mubarak years in the rearview mirror, one could argue that Mubarak may have been the greatest leader in modern Arab history. Yes, it was his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat who went to Jerusalem and made peace with Israel. But courage is not found only in bold gestures; it is also in the long accomplishment of many days. Seeing Sadat assassinated for signing the deal, Mubarak kept that peace for thirty years at great personal risk to himself—he escaped at least six attempts on his life. All those who complained it was a cold peace didn’t understand the nature of Egypt, and thus could not appreciate Mubarak’s balancing act in keeping it all together and Egypt quiet, for 30 years.
The 2004 economic reforms implemented by Mubarak’s son Gamal and his gang of technocrats won consistently high marks from the World Bank and IMF as Egypt privatized and opened up to foreign direct investment. The winter 2011 revolution that eventually toppled Mubarak also crashed the economy, especially tourism, without which Egypt’s already high unemployment figures are soaring.
The irony, a familiar feature of developing economies, is that the Mubarak-era initiatives gave rise to higher expectations and a class who demanded more. It was precisely those who owed their advancement—education, jobs, salaries—to Mubarak who first went to the streets in the winter of 2011 to demand his exit. The young revolutionaries who filled Tahrir Square in January and February of 2011 looked and dressed like Westerners and wanted to be rid of what reminded them that they weren’t Westerners—a dictator.
But because they built nothing themselves, they were eager to pull down what they could. They did not understand it was the dictator who guaranteed their privileges and protected their rights (albeit limited rights) against forces that, because the revolutionaries believed themselves to be Westerners, they could not fathom. The revolutionaries destroyed Mubarak on behalf of what they believed to be a liberal Egypt waiting to be born. But because the young revolutionaries did not know Egypt or their fellow countrymen, they could not predict what was waiting in the shadows: the Muslim Brotherhood.
I wrote recently that Mubarak was an Arab Lear—betrayed by his two ungrateful daughters, the army for whom he served as the regime’s civilian face for three decades, and the revolutionaries, the young men and women who owed their privilege to him. I argued that we would know Egypt had once again found its footing when the revolutionaries who helped topple him made an act of contrition and petitioned for the unloved old man’s release. The problem is that the decision to free Mubarak seems to have been made by the army alone.
In releasing Mubarak, Sisi, the strongman who now leads Egypt, is paying respect to the man who led Egypt for 30 years, but he is also further dividing the country. As the revolutionaries, the Tamarrod movement, begin to realize that the man who deposed Morsi and saved them from the jaws of the Brotherhood came not to fulfill the revolution but to put an end to the era that their childish and wanton destructiveness initiated, they, too, will turn against Sisi. How dare he free Mubarak, they will complain, and undo our great, our only, achievement! Whether or not Sisi will shoot them in the streets—as he has the Brotherhood—remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though: He’s no Hosni Mubarak.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).