Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak died on 25 February 2020 at the age of 91. Climbing the ranks towards the top of the national army, he was Egypt’s president for almost three decades, before losing his grip on power in just 18 days.
Born in the Nile River delta region, Mubarak graduated from the Egyptian military and air academy in 1950, before participating in advanced flight and bomber training in the Soviet Union. He held command positions in the Egyptian air force and was director of the air academy between 1966 and 1969.
As a young officer, Mubarak witnessed the coup d’état organized by Gamal Abdel Nasser and nationalist officers in 1952. However, Israel defeat of Egypt in the Six Day War in 1967 dealt a serious blow to nationalist policies in Egypt and severely weakened the country’s influence in the region.
Mubarak was appointed as chief commander of the country’s air force by then President of Egypt Anwar Sadat in 1972. Having successfully led the Egyptian air force in the opening days of the war with Israel in October 1973, he was promoted to the rank of air marshal in 1974. In April of 1975 Sadat named Mubarak vice president, and as such, Mubarak was actively involved in most Middle Eastern and Arab policy negotiations, such as the dispute between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania over the status of Western Sahara.
Mubarak became president following Sadat’s assassination on October 6, 1981, exactly eight years after the beginning of the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war. His time in office was marked by the improvement of Egypt’s relations with the other Arab countries and the easing of relations with Israel, especially following Egypt’s reaffirmation of the peace treaty with Israel (1979) under the Camp David Accords. At the same time, he maintained good relations with the United States, which remained Egypt’s principal aid donor.
In 1987 Mubarak won a second six-year mandate as president. In 1990, he led Arab states in supporting the Saudi decision to invite the aid of a U.S.-led military coalition to recover Kuwait during the Persian Gulf crisis and war following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, whereas he also played an important role in mediating the bilateral agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that was signed in 1993.
Re-elected president for a third time in 1993, Mubarak dealt nevertheless with a rise in guerrilla violence and growing turmoil among opposition parties asking for democratic reforms. He launched a campaign against Islamic fundamentalists, especially the Islamic Group, which was responsible for the 1997 attack at Luxor that claimed the lives of 60 foreign tourists.
Running unopposed, Mubarak was re-elected to a fourth presidential term in 1999 and in 2005 he won Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, in spite of low voter turnout and allegations of irregularities.
In January, 2011 thousands of protesters flooded the streets protesting against repression, corruption and poverty in Egypt and calling for Mubarak to step down as president. Those demonstrations took place shortly after a popular uprising in Tunisia, known as the Jasmine Revolution, forced Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to resign, making the Egyptian uprising the second in a series of protest movements that became known as the Arab Spring.
Despite Mubarak’s acknowledgement of the protesters’ demand for political change and his announcement to dissolve his cabinet and implement new social and economic reforms, they did little to calm the unrest. For the first time during his presidency, Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time in his presidency, choosing Omar Suleiman, the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service. On February 1, under pressure from continued protests, Mubarak appeared on public television and announced that he would not stand in the presidential election scheduled for September 2011.
On February 11 Mubarak left Cairo for his residence in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town on the Sinai Peninsula. Some hours later, vice president Suleiman announced on Egyptian television that Mubarak had stepped down as president, leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to govern the country. News of Mubarak’s resignation was met with celebrations by crowds at Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other protest sites all over the country.
Following Mubarak’s departure, the Egyptian government began to investigate allegations of corruption and abuse of power by the Mubarak regime, questioning and arresting several former officials and business leaders with close links to Mubarak. Calls for the investigation to focus on Mubarak himself intensified, fueled by reports of a huge family fortune worth billions of dollars held in overseas accounts, causing the public prosecutor to bring Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, under investigation.
In May the public prosecutor announced that Mubarak would stand trial for ordering the killing of protesters, in addition to corruption and abuse of power. In January 2012, prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty for Mubarak and several senior security officials. In June 2012 an Egyptian court found Mubarak guilty of complicity in the deaths of demonstrators and sentenced him to life imprisonment; however he was cleared of corruption charges.
In January, 2013 an Egyptian court ordered Mubarak’s retrial for killing protesters and corruption, which was then postponed when the presiding judge withdrew from the case. In August 2013, less than two months after the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi and the establishment of a military-backed interim administration, the Egyptian public prosecutor ordered Mubarak’s release from prison and his transfer to a military hospital in Cairo, where he remained under guard. While Mubarak still faced corruption charges and a retrial for killing protesters, many perceived the timing of his release, combined with a violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s indefinite detention, as a sign of Egypt’s return to military authoritarianism.
In May of 2014 Mubarak was sentenced by an Egyptian court to three years in prison for embezzling public funds, while his sons received a four-year sentence each for the same reason. An Egyptian court dismissed charges against Mubarak in the killing of protesters in November 2014 and after a final trial, Mubarak was acquitted in 2017 and released from detention at a military hospital in Cairo, before returning to his villa in the affluent neighborhood of Heliopolis.
As he approached the end of his 30 years in power, longer than his three predecessors combined, Mubarak saw the population of his country double, but most of Nasser’s social welfare programs and the relative political openness of Sadat’s era reversed.
In terms of foreign policy, Mubarak became one of the leading US allies in the Middle East, receiving tens of billions of dollars in American military aid and contributing with troops to the American-led coalition that forced Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.
His government’s continued observance of the Camp David accords with Israel was the foundation of the so-called “cold peace” between the previously belligerent neighbors. Egypt also hosted the signing of several agreements during the 1990s, as well as the protocols that constituted the Oslo Accords and led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority.
During his final years, Hosni Mubarak was encircled by his family and supporters. His peaceful end was in strong contrast to the one of his successor at the presidency of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, who died last June after collapsing inside a courtroom cage.
The diametrically opposed fates of the two men highlight the difficult task Egyptians are facing as they try to evaluate the legacy of Hosni Mubarak. Ultimately, the people of Egypt tend to see in Mubarak’s demise the failings of the Arab Spring, as hopes for democracy following his ouster in 2011 have been crushed under the iron grip of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.