In my encounters with Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s the now-beleaguered Egyptian President presented himself as forthright, confident yet modest. He was well liked by Western leaders for his directness and pragmatism. Every discussion I was privy to between him and Canadian ministers was positive. His advice on Middle East events was sought out. His flaws as an autocrat were accepted as the inevitable product of Egypt's rough political fabric.
For these reasons, if Mr. Mubarak resigns now, today, he could still leave a generally positive legacy. If he diminishes himself further by clinging to power at the cost of blood and chaos, the record of history will read very differently.
Mr. Mubarak is Egypt's fourth president, succeeding Anwar Sadat, the peacemaker, and Gamal Abdul Nasser and Muhammad Naguib, who overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk in 1952. During his almost 30 years as President, he has represented the dominant military establishment. Initially, he was well-regarded by Egyptians. They were fatalistic in accepting their country's autocratic traditions. Indeed the army is still held in high esteem on the street.
He provided continuity, stability and economic liberalization. For many years, he permitted relative freedom of speech and openness. He has been a strong supporter of a considered and moderate foreign policy, particularly respecting Israel. He has been a strong opponent of Islamic radicalism. He continued Sadat's close relationship with Washington and Egypt became the second-largest (after Israel) recipient of U.S. aid. Theirs has been a tight alliance; Mr. Mubarak is no puppet but nevertheless the Americans' key man in the Arab world. Hence, Barack Obama's reluctance to cut him loose.
But things have now gone horribly wrong for Mr. Mubarak. He became too comfortable. Power became too sweet. Privilege came by right. Any sense of accountability withered. Confidence in a few, cautious advisers put him out of touch with public sentiment. Preoccupation with security, in particular after a nearly successful assassination attempt by jihadists in 1995, led him to focus still more on his own safety and that of the regime.
Sadat picked Mr. Mubarak as vice-president in 1975, seeing him as effective, diligent, hard working and, within the Egyptian context, honest. As commander of the air force during the 1973 war with Israel, he gained status and respect. Best of all from Sadat's point of view, he appeared at the time to have no political ambitions that would threaten the former's hold on power.
Mr. Mubarak's longevity has been perhaps his greatest enemy. The seemingly insoluble problem of poverty and unemployment, coupled with an increasing awareness among the middle class that pluralism in politics should be a basic right, has left him isolated from the people he rules. They are fatigued by his predictability, manipulation and ties to a corrupt business elite created by his policies.
The spark that erupted in Tunis two weeks ago overwhelmed him. He could not conceive Egyptians would react in the same vein, so comfortable was he that he had their pulse, that he understood them better than they did themselves. How mistaken he was.
Michael Bell is the Paul Martin (Sr.) Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor and a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Hosni Mubarak is Egypt's fourth president. An earlier version of this story suggested he was third. The story has been corrected.Report Typo/Error