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TURMOIL IN EGYPT | EPITAPH FOR A STRONGMA N

Mubarak’s reign ended by drive for a legacy of stability

Hosni Mubarak said on TV Thursday that he had devoted his life to his country. Hosni Mubarak said on TV Thursday that he had devoted his life to his country. (AFP/Getty Images)
By Michael Slackman
New York Times / February 12, 2011

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Hosni Mubarak’s legacy was supposed to be stability. During almost three decades in power, he rejected bold action in favor of caution. He took half-steps at economic liberalization, preserved the peace with Israel, gave his police force the power to arrest without charge, and allowed only the veneer of democracy to take hold.

But history upended Mubarak, and his fall came, as suddenly and surprisingly as his unlikely elevation to the presidency 30 years ago. Mubarak’s Egypt rose up against him. The streets and squares filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters day and night until he could no longer deny the inescapable conclusion that in order to restore stability, he needed to go.

It was an unexpected epitaph for a military man who until recently was revered — and reviled — as Egypt’s modern-day pharaoh, serving longer than any contemporary Egyptian leader since Muhammad Ali, the founder of the modern state.

“He’s the accident of history who brilliantly survived as the longest accidental ruler of Egypt,’’ said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar at the University of Notre Dame who, like many other Egyptians living abroad, rushed to Tahrir Square in recent days to share in the moment.

In his final appearance on state television Thursday, when he astounded most of his listeners by appearing to say he would remain in office, he was no longer the stocky, confident military man who was the only leader many Egyptians had ever really known. At 82, he was frail and thin, with dyed black hair and a sometimes poignant undercurrent of self-justification.

The Egyptian public, Egyptian political and military leaders, and US officials all expected him to say he was handing over power. But he apparently could not bring himself to say so, clinging to his vision of himself as a reluctant leader tapped by fate to lead a nation that could not survive without his guiding hand.

“I have given my life serving Egypt and the people,’’ he said, suggesting it was he who was tired of them and not the other way around.

He failed this time using tactics that had so long sustained his rule: the ability to divide and conquer the masses, to anesthetize the population with promises, pay raises, subsidies, and government reshuffling. He spoke of preserving his dignity, but that is exactly what the crowds in the street were fighting for, but for themselves.

During his tenure, Egypt’s population doubled to more than 80 million. Life grew harder as the social contract between the state and citizens broke down. Satellite television and the Internet meant the state could no longer control what people knew, and so its narrative was often ignored or even mocked.

The gap between rich and poor became greater, and politics became less ideological and more about common demands: for freedom, democracy, social justice, rule of law, and economic equality.

Mubarak’s government struggled to prevent people’s economic dissatisfaction from becoming political, but in the end, that failed too. As he feared, the Egyptian people blamed the entire system.

But perhaps most of all, Mubarak’s concept of stability — one that was embraced by Washington — in the end proved the ultimate destabilizer, specialists in Egypt said.

Facing a police state that choked off competing ideas and ideologies, preventing free elections and manipulating the state media, the public found the only way to achieve its goals was by taking to the streets, occupying the symbolic heart of the nation, Tahrir Square, and refusing to go home.

Mubarak leaves office now with the country’s future more uncertain than at any time since assassins killed President Anwar el-Sadat, elevating Mubarak to the presidency.

If stability was to be the hallmark of his reign, that very goal proved to be at least part of his undoing.

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