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Egypt’s modern-day ‘pharaoh’ Hosni Mubarak dies

Hosni Mubarak's death was confirmed by state TV on Tuesday in the age of 91

By New York Times News Service/Michael Slackman in Cairo

  • Published 26.02.20, 2:37 AM
  • Updated 26.02.20, 2:37 AM
Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak (Wikipedia)

Hosni Mubarak, the former autocratic President of Egypt, whose hold on power was broken and place in history upended by a public uprising against the poverty, corruption and repressive police tactics that came to define his 30 years in office, died on Tuesday. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by state TV.

Mubarak spent most of his final years at the Maadi Military Hospital in southern Cairo, under guard in a room overlooking the Nile as he defiantly battled courtroom charges of corruption and conspiracy to murder. He was finally released on March 24, 2017, having been convicted in a single, relatively minor case, and spirited across the city to his mansion in the affluent neighbourhood of Heliopolis.

Last October, he made a rare appearance in a video published on YouTube where he shared his memories of Egypt’s 1973 war against Israel, when he commanded Egypt’s air force. It was the first time he had spoken before a camera since his ouster during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Mubarak had once appeared invincible. He had survived multiple assassination attempts, held power longer than anyone since Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of the modern Egyptian state, suppressed a wave of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists and appeared even to defy the gravity of age.

But his edifice of power turned out to be fragile and dated, built on strong-arm rule, cronyism and an alliance with the West. It was ultimately brought down by the shock wave of popular unrest in the Arab world — calls for democracy, the rule of law and an end to corruption — that came to be called the Arab Spring.

He was forced to resign on February 11, 2011, after 18 days of protests, when the Egyptian public poured into the streets by the millions, stripping authority from a man who had been likened to a modern-day pharaoh.

At first, it appeared he would be able simply to withdraw from the scene and live quietly in his villa in Sharm el Sheikh, a Red Sea resort. But the crowds would not allow it. They demanded that he and his family be investigated for corruption, and that he be held accountable for the more than 800 people killed during the days of protest.

The public pressure worked; he was arrested and remanded to a military hospital while he awaited trial. His sons, Alaa and Gamal, once treated as princes of the state, were jailed in Tora prison.

“Like many rulers who isolate themselves and concentrate power around them, he misread the Egyptian people and their commitment to collective life,” said Diane Singerman, a professor at American University and an expert on contemporary Egypt.

In August 2011, Egyptians were astonished to see Mubarak wheeled into a courtroom on a hospital gurney and placed in the defendants cage. It was a remarkable and humbling fall for the only ruler most Egyptians had ever known.

In the end, however, the trial did little to provide a sense of closure or reconciliation for a society struggling to come to terms with its past and future.

In June 2012, Mubarak was wheeled back into court, his arms crossed defiantly across his chest as he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But an appeals court overturned that verdict and ordered a retrial, and he was ultimately exonerated. He also skirted several corruption accusations.

The 2012 trial occurred against the tense backdrop of a presidential election. The two candidates heading for a runoff were polarising figures, one a leader with the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Islamist movement; the other, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. And the verdict drew thousands of people into the streets to denounce it as a sham, many believing that the judge laid the groundwork for the former President to go free on appeal.

Mubarak never did actually resign publicly; apparently stumbling in a speech on February 10, 2011, he failed to choke out the words.

The next day, against a tide of public anger, Omar Suleiman, the longtime chief of intelligence and newly installed vice-president, read a statement on television signaling the end of Mubarak’s reign.

But even then, Mubarak had trouble acknowledging that he was through.