Hosni Mubarak, who presided over Egypt from 1981 to 2011, was on life support at a military hospital in Cairo late Tuesday night. The 84-year-old was declared clinically dead on arrival after being transferred from Tura prison, the foul facility in which so many of the critics of his regime had been incarcerated.
Mr. Mubarak came to office unexpectedly and ill prepared, although his nearly three decades in power would be the longest tenure of any Egyptian leader since Mohammed Ali in the 19th century.
He was chosen by the country’s armed-forces leadership to take the place of Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated while reviewing a military parade that celebrated the “triumph” of the 1973 war against Israel. Mr. Mubarak, who sat beside Mr. Sadat in the reviewing stand, had served as commander of the air force during that war and was rewarded with the vice-presidency in 1975, a largely ceremonial position that did not automatically make him next in line to be president.
The former fighter pilot from a rural community in the Nile Delta came to the highest office of the largest, most populous state in the Arab world not with a great vision or a dream for the country. Rather, it was the threats he faced that guided him.
First and foremost was the threat of the Islamists who had assassinated his predecessor and with whom he would wage an on-again off-again war. Second, was the political and social instability that racked the country and led him to expand Egypt’s police state. And then there was the stagnant, backwater of an economy for which he sought a cure: privatization, an approach that generated wealth but led also to massive corruption.
In the uprising of 2011 and his ouster from office, it was the same three threats that proved to be his downfall.
Along the way, Mr. Mubarak had to cope with the foreign-policy legacy his predecessor had left him.
Mr. Sadat’s ambitious 1979 treaty with Israel had won for Egypt peace and friends in Western capitals, but had left the country ostracized by the Arab world over which Cairo had once presided.
To his credit, Mr. Mubarak never wavered in his support for the treaty.
“His contribution to peace, as far as I'm concerned, will never be forgotten,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said of Mr. Mubarak recently.
To escape Egypt’s isolation in the Arab world, Mr. Mubarak turned to Iraq’s ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein and became a big backer of the Iraqi’s war against Iran. By the time the Iraq-Iran War was over in 1988, Egypt’s name was no longer cursed by the Arab leaders.
Two years later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mr. Mubarak joined forces with Kuwait’s defenders and regained the political and financial support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Egypt was back, and the headquarters of the Arab League was again on the Corniche in Cairo.
But Mr. Mubarak, who portrayed himself as a strongman, felt far from secure.
Within days of assuming the presidency, Mr. Mubarak set out to find and crush the Islamic Jihad group that had assassinated Mr. Sadat and wounded Mr. Mubarak and several others in the attack. He rounded up the usual suspects, and then some.
Later, in an attempt to reconcile with the wider Muslim opposition, he began a concerted strategy to win over the Islamic moderates while discrediting the extremists. The approach backfired as militants benefited from his moderate approach.
In 1985, on the streets of Cairo, one could hear from the preachers at several hard-line mosques scathing attacks on Coptic Christians and denunciations of decadence that marked the Sadat and Mubarak years. The only red line the Islamists could not cross, it seemed, was calling for the overthrow of the president.
By the early 1990s, the Gamaa Islamiya, another militant Islamic splinter group, was launching deadly attacks on Egypt’s Copts and threatening foreign visitors. Tourism all along the Nile slowed to a trickle.
Mr. Mubarak launched a brutal suppression of the organization, killing many of its leaders who were based in the cities of Upper Egypt. The group’s last violent gasp was an attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997 that killed 62 people, most of them tourists.
Today, the Gamaa Islamiya maintains it has renounced violence and its political party, the Building and Development Party, held 13 seats in the recently dismissed parliament.
Its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, all through the Mubarak years had been peace-abiding but, nevertheless, was denied legal political status. And the roundup of Islamists in the mid-1990s included many of the Brotherhood along with extreme elements.