The day was October 6, 1981. Egyptians were gathered at a victory parade to celebrate their army’s fight against Israel eight years earlier, which eventually led to the end of the Israeli occupation of the Sinai. Yet not all Egyptians were pleased with President Anwar Sadat’s foreign policy, which entailed the bold and controversial decision to make Egypt the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel. Filled with hatred for Sadat, an Islamist serving as an Army Lieutenant named Khalid Ahmed Showky al-Islambouli assassinated Sadat that day.
Islambouli met his own fate at the hands of a firing squad in April 1982. Yet Islambouli became a hero among certain segments of the Middle East that shared his vitriol for Sadat and wanted Arab/Muslim countries to stand firmly united against Israel. Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was one of his staunchest supporters. The Islamic Republic venerated him by naming a street in Tehran after him, a move that further poisoned Egyptian-Iranian relations in the aftermath of one of Sadat’s dear friends, the Shah, being ousted.
Sadat’s assassination, which sent a message out to all Arab leaders about the risks of accepting Israel into the region’s diplomatic fold, led to President Hosni Mubarak’s rise to power. In power for almost 30 years until the “Arab Spring” in 2011, Mubarak ruled Egypt as an authoritarian strongman. Mubarak successfully restored Egypt’s diplomatic ties with a long list of Arab states that cut off relations with Cairo because of its decision to abandon a pan-Arab struggle against the “Zionist enemy.” While in power, Mubarak also secured for Egypt high levels of foreign aid from Washington, which had previously welcomed Sadat’s decision to make peace with Israel, as well as Mubarak’s decision to keep that peace despite most Egyptians opposing their government’s relationship with Tel Aviv.
Throughout the 1980s, Mubarak’s regime brought Egypt into a period of political liberalization that granted certain Islamist factions an opportunity to emerge in public life. Yet that period ended with a harsh crackdown on Islamists which intensified following the near assassination of Mubarak himself in 1995 on a trip to the Ethiopian capital. In the years that followed, Egypt became more of a police state with security agencies acting with seemingly no restraint. As many as 30,000 Egyptians were locked up on purported terrorism charges during that period.
Amid these years of oppression, Egypt had a growing population and a stalling economy. To be sure, Mubarak himself was completely removed from the suffering of ordinary Egyptians. Owning several palaces and USD 40 billion of wealth, Mubarak failed to address the needs of most Egyptian citizens while he and his cronies reaped the benefits of Egypt’s fortunes. Although many analysts saw Mubarak’s Egypt as a model for “authoritarian stability,” years of life under his government pushed many citizens to begin rejecting his legitimacy to govern. The tipping point came in 2011 when widespread anger with his rule propelled the “Arab Spring,” which surprised Middle East experts with how quickly the uprising brought an end to his presidency and ushered in a new era that is remembered as Egypt’s brief democratic experiment.
Mubarak passed away this week at age 91. His death marked the end of an era. But Mubarak’s legacy lives on in Egypt, where nearly 100 million citizens continue to live under the rule of a government that has even surpassed Mubarak’s regime in terms of its quench for authoritarianism. Moreover, many of the key figures in Mubarak’s government returned to their positions of power following the Saudi/Emirati-backed military-orchestrated coup d’état in 2013, essentially reversing the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
There is no denying that Mubarak was a darling of the West, Israel, and some Gulf states. The administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and (until 2011) also Barack Obama backed his government with strong economic, diplomatic, and military support that helped him maintain his authoritarian rule. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton hailed the Egyptian leader and his wife as “friends” of the Clinton family and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good.” Hours after the news broke about his death, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” over the passing of his “personal friend.” Also, shortly after the former Egyptian president’s death, Saudi and Emirati leaders glorified Mubarak’s life and service to Egypt.
Many analysts have argued, and correctly so, that Mubarak’s oppression was never as harsh as that of Egypt’s current head of state, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that Egypt’s status quo is a direct outcome of Mubarak’s style of governance that Egyptians lived under for three decades. The state’s neglect, corruption, authoritarianism, and rampant use of torture have all resulted from Mubarak and his predecessors’ rule which institutionalized such practices on the part of Egypt’s “Deep State.” As the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Andrew Miller put it, “without Mubarak there is no Sisi.”
Indeed, Mubarak is no longer alive. But his brand of oppression is alive and well in Egypt and many other Arab states. Furthermore, with President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator” in power in Cairo, the legacy of Washington giving unconditional support to Egyptian strongmen lives on too.