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A dictator's downfall: Rage at Mubarak became liability to military

A picture dated November 24, 1982 shows Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011 and handed power to the military. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE BOUCHON (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images)

Philippe Bouchon/AFP/Getty Images/Philippe Bouchon/AFP/Getty Images

He was a classic military man, a disciple of stability who survived six assassination attempts. He fancied himself a father figure, using his patrician authority to forge a strategic alliance with the West and ride out waves of regional unrest.

In the end, however, Hosni Mubarak was deposed by the very army from whose ranks he had risen, angrily rejected by the generation of Egyptians whose fate he had shaped over three decades of ironclad rule.

The patriarchal image he sought to project in the face of overwhelming opposition was shattered as hundreds of thousands of protesters defied his attempts to cling to power, shaking their shoes in anger at his likeness whenever it was broadcast on the giant screen that loomed over Tarhir Square.

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It wasn't just that he proved himself incapable of making good on his promise to restore stability to the streets of Cairo. It was that the larger myth of Mr. Mubarak as a modern day pharaoh no longer resonated with the young, educated Egyptians who bridled under his rule. They didn't want a father figure, they wanted more freedom.

The narrative Mr. Mubarak offered, casting himself as the only safety net standing between his country and utter chaos lost coherence. The 82-year-old president who once embodied stability had come to undermine it to such an extent that the military seemed compelled to shove him aside in humiliation.

"He defiantly insisted he was the 'Great son of Egypt' but in reality he had become a liability to the military and met an ignominious end," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indeed, the final wish Mr. Mubarak expressed as president in his first televised speech during the uprising – to "die on the soil of Egypt and be judged by history" – is now decidedly up in the air.

Mr. Mubarak has reportedly flown to his vacation home in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh as Switzerland froze hundreds of millions of dollars in assets belonging to him and his family.

Meanwhile, discussions are said to be under way between Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates about moving the former president and his family to Dubai, where he would possibly be immune from prosecution against charges of crimes against humanity.

"This is really uncharted territory for the vast majority of Egyptians. It's definitely uncharted territory for the military," Mr. Cook said.

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Born in 1928, Mr. Mubarak became a professional air force officer as a young man, rising through the ranks. He was, however, decidedly apolitical. In 1969, he became chief of staff of the Egyptian air force, and was promoted to air chief marshal after the October war in 1973.

Anwar Sadat appointed him vice-president two years later. He was unswervingly loyal to the president as Egypt allied itself more closely with the United States and forged an unlikely peace treaty with neighbouring Israel. When Mr. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981, Mr. Mubarak seized power.

He declaring emergency law, which has never been lifted, vowing to bring stability to his country that was burdened by debt and vilified by its Arab neighbours for making peace with Israel.

Mr. Mubarak was hardly an agent of change, but he did make gestures toward economic reform. He presided over an overhaul of Egypt's infrastructure, rebuilding roads and building subways. He also normalized relations with Egypt's Arab neighbours and reined in debt. Through his alliance with the West, Egypt emerged as a key mediator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which ultimately failed.

He ordered countless crackdowns on Islamic extremists, though in doing so, many analysts suggested he radicalized the movement and gave rise to some of al-Qaeda's eventual leaders.

Even though some of his moves as president were popular, he consistently ignored the wishes of the people. He was re-elected in rigged, one-candidate referendums where he often won an unbelievable 90 per cent of the vote.

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Over the years, he spent more time in Sharm el-Sheikh, visibly ailing as he aged. "He was never interested in listening to the people or popular forces," said Diane Singerman, a professor at American University and an Egypt expert.

"Any kind of organization that competed with the state was seen as very suspicious. People who were figuring out to do even small, innocuous things – helping the poor or beautifying their streets – were seen as a political challenge," she added.

Egypt's economic growth was uneven. Under his recent rule, Egypt ranked as one of the Middle East's fastest-growing economies. But that is juxtaposed with rising poverty to the point that 40 per cent of Egyptians today live on less than $2 a day.

"You have university graduates serving coffee in government ministries," said Louis Delvoie, a senior fellow at the Queen's Centre for International Relations and a former Canadian ambassador.

Ultimately, it was not Egypt's poor who led the revolution, it was the middle class. Nor was it the demonstrations on the streets that ousted Mr. Mubarak, rather, it was the military's reaction to them. Mr. Mubarak's legacy, meant to be of stability, has opened an unprecedented new era of uncertainty for Egypt.

"This was not a revolution of extreme poverty. This was a revolution of unfulfilled expectations," Mr. Delvoie said.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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